The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao / Junot Diaz

While Oscar De León, an overweight young Dominican man growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, might dominate this novel’s spotlight, he is not the story’s primary character. The author, Junot Diaz, uses Oscar and the history of his ill-fated family to show what life was like in the Dominican Republic under the long, brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.

Oscar De León, nicknamed Oscar Wao (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde), is the ultimate nerd. Obsessed with science fiction, comic books, and writing fantasy stories, his childhood is a lonely one. As he grows older, he falls in love with a number of women, but for the most part he is too shy to approach any of them. His greatest fear is that he will die a virgin. Surprisingly, Oscar makes the perfect vehicle for the author to tell the greater story of the Dominican Republic’s sad story. Through flashbacks that introduce his grandparents, mother, and other members of the family, the reader is provided with details surrounding the cruel reign of Trujillo (nicknamed El Jefe), the country’s ruler from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Oscar’s forebears dared to defy Trujillo and suffered serious consequences – his family was branded with a fuku, essentially a curse, for generations to come.

The story’s narrator for most of the book is Yunior, a friend of Oscar’s and someone who is in love with his sister Lola. Yunior’s narration swings back and forth from Caribbean vernacular, often profane, to a more academic tone, complete with footnotes. Sprinkled throughout are references to Lord Of The Rings, which creatively compare Trujillo’s rule to the Dark Lord Sauron. Yunior’s interesting asides provide the historical details that show the true horrors that Trujillo and his band of thugs inflicted on the country.

When this novel was first published in 2007, despite receiving glowing reviews, I decided to give it a pass. I thought it fell into the genre of magical realism, a type of fiction that I’ve not been particularly drawn to. I found that, while it does include elements of magical realism, it is better described as a tragicomedy. It is the rare novel that succeeds in telling a personal story which illustrates the history of an entire country. Without a doubt, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao will be on my favorite reads list for 2017.

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