The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

OscarAfter I got off the plane in New Orleans a few weeks ago, I proceeded to get on the wrong shuttle, which took me to the wrong hotel (glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens). Turns out that Hilton Garden Inn is not exactly Hilton, like Chevy is not Cadillac, and that there are several of these McHiltons in the city.

It turns out I was saved from a tragic fate by a Golden Mongoose…wait, I’m ahead of myself. Turns out that Penguin Book rep Terese Neumann made the same mistake (much to the mirth of two retired Pennsylvania gamblers, for whom our wrong shuttle was right), and she proposed we share a cab to the right hotel. Upon reaching the correct hotel, to our horror we discovered that the driver was a man with no face…err, I’m ahead again. Upon reaching the hotel, aforementioned Penguin discovered she was cash poor, so I bailed her out with assurances that she’d make good when I visited her exhibit in the CCCC exhibit hall. She was true to her word.

Sorry for the long story, but later while I was handing the money she owed me back to her in exchange for books, she gave me a deal on Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz’s second offering, telling me I had to read it FIRST, and I had to let her know what I thought. “I think it’s going to win the National Book Award,” she said.

Well, Terese. Here it is.

I don’t know anything about National Book Award criteria, but Oscar Wao was fascinating, challenging, and well worth reading in spite of what I’ll call some inconsistencies.

Oscar de Leon (Wao is a nickname he earns) is a pathetic Dominican American whose brief and wondrous life is chronicled in these pages. What fascinated me wasn’t Oscar so much, but the rich portrait Diaz draws of Dominican life and history over the last 75 years, the scifi/fantasy references (particularly Tolkein) that permeate every page, and the footnotes. Footnotes have never been this much fun.

I’ll admit that I’m a Dominican historical neophyte, and that Trujillo (Rafael LeĆ³nidas Trujillo Molina [aka El Jefe, Fuckface, or Sauron]) was not someone with whose horrific crimes I was familiar. I can’t say that any more. Through the middle part of the last century, the Dominican people have suffered as much as any people on this planet.

For me, the richest parts of the novel are the histories of Oscar’s mother, Beli, and grandfather, Abelard, whose tragic stories intersect with El Jefe’s in ways that would certainly place him among the worst dictators of all time. Though it’s fiction, from what outside reading I’ve done, I’m certain that Diaz does not exaggerate.

As for Oscar himself, I wasn’t sure I really cared much about him (only about 1/3 of the book is about him). What I found inconsistent were the spare narratives of Oscar’s early life narrated by our Watcher, Yunior, up against the richness of the stories of Beli and Abelard. In theory, Yunior narrates the whole book, but there’s just something missing from his Oscar narratives compared to the others until Oscar returns to the DR himself, and suddenly becomes a compelling character.

Oscar’s transformation is worth waiting for, though, especially since we get one last look at the Golden Mongoose and the man with no face.


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