Reviews provided by Syndetics
Kirkus Book Review
A rich, impassioned vision of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora, filtered through the destiny of a single family. After a noted debut volume of short stories (Drown, 1996), D"az pens a first novel that bursts alive in an ironic, confiding, exuberant voice. Its wider focus is an indictment of the terrible Trujillo regime and its aftermath, but the approach is oblique, traced backwards via the children (Oscar and Lola) of a larger-than-life but ruined Dominican matriarch, Beli. In earthy, streetwise, Spanish-interlaced prose, D"az links overweight, nerdy fantasist Oscar, his combative, majestic sister and their once Amazonian mother to the island of their ancestry. There, an aunt, La Inca, with strange, possibly supernatural powers, heals and saves Beli after her involvement with one of Trujillo's minor henchman, who was married to the dictator's sister. Beli, at age14, had naively hoped this affair would lead to marriage and family, but instead her pregnancy incurred a near-fatal beating, after which she fled to New Jersey to a life of drudgery, single parenting and illness. By placing sad, lovelorn, virginal Oscar at the book's heart, D"az softens the horrors visited on his antecedents, which began when Trujillo cast his predatory eye on wealthy Abelard Cabral's beautiful daughter. Was the heap of catastrophes that ensued fukú (accursed fate), D"az asks repeatedly, and can there be counterbalancing zafa (blessing)? The story comes full circle with Oscar's death in Santo Domingo's fateful cornfields, himself the victim of a post-Trujillo petty tyrant, but it's redeemed by the power of love. Despite a less sure-footed conclusion, D"az's reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
New York Times Book Review
In this first novel, a nerdy Dominican-American yearns to write fiction and fall in love. BY A. O.SCOTT THE hero of Junot Díaz's first novel is an overweight Dominican-American man named Oscar, a "ghetto nerd" from Paterson, N.J., and a devotee of what he somewhat grandly calls "the more speculative genres." He means comic books, sword-and-sorcery novels, science fiction, role-playing games - the popliterary storehouse of myths and fantasies that sexually frustrated, socially maladjusted guys like him are widely believed to inhabit. But of course an awful lot of serious young-to-middle-aged novelists (Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon) hang around there as well, lingering over the narratives that fed their childhood imaginations in order to infuse their ambitious, difficult stories with some of the allegorical pixie dust and epic grandiloquence the genres offer. In "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," Diaz, the author of a book of sexy, diamond-sharp stories called "Drown," shows impressive high-low dexterity, flashing his geek credentials, his street wisdom and his literary learning with equal panache. A short epigraph from the Fantastic Four is balanced by a longer one from Derek Walcott; allusions to "Dune," "The Matrix" and (especially) "The Lord of the Rings" rub up against references to Melville and Garcia Márquez. Oscar's nickname is a Spanglish pronunciation of Oscar Wilde, whom he is said to resemble when dressed up in his Doctor Who costume for Halloween. "What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?" Oscar wonders. And the question of how to take account of his ancestral homeland - its folklore, its politics, the diaspora that brought so many of its inhabitants to North Jersey and Upper Manhattan - is one that explicitly preoccupies Oscar's creator. The way Díaz tells it, the Dominican Republic, which occupies the Spanish-speaking half of the island where Columbus made landfall, is the kind of small country that suffers from a surfeit of history. From the start, it has been a breeding ground for outsize destinies and monstrous passions. Díaz's novel also has a wild, capacious spirit, making it feel much larger than it is. Within its relatively compact span, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" contains an unruly multitude of styles and genres. The tale of Oscar's coming-of-age is in some ways the book's thinnest layer, a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus. Holding all this together - just barely, but in the end effectively - is a voice that is profane, lyrical, learned and tireless, a riot of accents and idioms coexisting within a single personality. The voice belongs, for the most part, to Yunior, who only gradually slides from behind the curtain of apparently omniscient narration to reveal himself as a character. He's Oscar's sometime roommate at Rutgers, the would-be-boyfriend of Oscar's sister, Lola, and in just about every imaginable way Oscar's opposite. While Oscar favors the stilted, thesaurus-fed diction of the fantasy-nerd autodidact ("I think she's orchidaceous"), Yunior affects a bilingual b-boy flow, punctuated by bouts of didacticism. And while Oscar falls madly and chastely in love with a succession of not-quite-attainable women, Yunior is a chronic womanizer. Though Yunior is, like Oscar, an aspiring writer, his preferred genres are more hard-boiled, "all robberies and drug deals and ... BLAU! BLAU! BLAU!" "To say I'd never in my life met a Dominican like him would be to put it mildly," Yunior explains, and in creating Oscar, Díaz has used one stereotype to subvert another. Not all Dominican men are macho peacocks, and not all sci-fi, anime and Dungeons & Dragons fanatics are white boys. That this may be an obvious point doesn't diminish the skill and flair with which Díaz brings it home. But "The Brief Wondrous Life" isn't Oscar's story alone. Indeed, he often seems like a bit of an exile in the book that bears his name. The recounting of his thwarted romances, his suicide attempt, his friendships and his literary projects is interrupted - and overshadowed - by episodes of family history that reverse the migratory path from the D.R. to the U.S.A. and concentrate on the women in Oscar's family. His sister, a punk rocker, runaway and track star, is in many ways a more vivid and magnetic character than her brother, as is their mother, Beli, whose remarkable biography forms the novel's true narrative backbone. In Baní, the provincial Dominican city where she was raised, Beli was a dark-skinned beauty, a scholarship girl at a fancy private school and eventually the lover of a notorious criminal. Her son's painful, familiar passage into adulthood is set against her own transformation, shown in reverse. When we first see her, she is an angry, borderline-abusive immigrant matriarch, fighting with her daughter and furiously wearing herself out with work and worry. But later chapters show Beli as a rebellious daughter in her own right, struggling with La Inca, the poor yet respectable relative in whose home she was raised. Beli's parents - a doctor and a nurse, as La Inca never tires of reminding her - were members of the bourgeoisie who fell afoul of Rafael Trujillo, an impressively brutal dictator, even by mid-20th-century Latin American standards. As Díaz puts it in a footnote: "At first glance, he was just your typical Latin American caudillo, but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator." And for just this reason Trujillo proves to be a great boon for Díaz, who washes the cities and villages of his country in the 1940s and '50s in a period ambience that's violent as well as sensual and exotic. The island may be cursed and haunted, but it's also enchanted; even the bitterest memories seem softened by nostalgia. The evil spirits that are periodically invoked to explain Oscar's family's bad luck are also, for the novelist if not for his characters, lucky charms. Without the horrors and superstitions of the old country, without the tropical sweetness that inflects Díaz's prose even at moments of great cruelty, Oscar Wao would be just another geek with an Akira poster on his dorm-room wall and a long string of desperate, unconsummated sexual obsessions. The incongruity between Oscar's circumstances and his background - a disjunction Díaz solves violently and unconvincingly in the book's final section - is the real subject of "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." This is, almost in spite of itself, a novel of assimilation, a fractured chronicle of the ambivalent, inexorable movement of the children of immigrants toward the American middle class, where the terrible, incredible stories of what parents and grandparents endured in the old country have become a genre in their own right. 'What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo?' Oscar wonders. 'What more fantasy than the Antilles?' A. O. Scott is a film critic Jor The Times. He is writing a book about the American novel since World War II.