Editor’s alert: Key plot points of this book are discussed below.
Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The plot trajectory of the book: kind of expected, to tell the truth, but Oscar Wao, the main character, is the loneliest sci-fi nerd in the Dominican Republic, and I really love him. He’s my baby brother, though I’m white, and grew up in Pittsburgh and my family circulated in middle-class Episcopalian circles and Oscar grew up Caribbean and Catholic.
Oscar Wao is my literary baby brother as much as Fran Leibowitz is my wisecracking big sister; I’m inclined toward him. His “nerdliness” (a big hat tip to Junot Diaz for the creation of new slang) is my nerdliness. I can’t run away from the fact that in junior high I begged my mother for months to get me a DIY paper mache dragon mobile, and a unicorn notebook with hearts and stars shooting from it’s horn. It’s comforting that no matter what a geek I was in the 80s, in my Keds, clutching my unicorn notebook, it’s not even one iota of Oscar’s lameitude. Oscar was the kid in your class so below the social radar that you didn’t even notice.
Yet Oscar burns bright. He’s smart, he’s witty, and he worships at the shrine of Woman. In contrast, the narrator, Oscar’s Rutgers roommate and his sister’s sometime boyfriend is a Dominican playboy who loves shagging. He’s got game. But even he, dog that he is, whines to have any of Oscar’s talents and passion. The laugh-out-loud passages in the book are treatises on Latin men pondering quien es el gallo mas gallo, the bigger Caribbean hombre, with puffed out chest and high-shine shoes. But Oscar’s manliness is of another sort.
Maybe it’s that big sister thing. You just want to squeeze the overweight hulk of Oscar, tell him it’s going to be okay, as you would a savant toddler. You want the book to end with him triumphant, head of a company, a Dominican Bill Gates, or the author of a best-selling novel about the atrocities of Trujillo (which are creepily witty and well catalogued in the book’s many footnotes). Instead he ends up dead, beaten to death in a sugar cane field. The collateral damage: Junot Diaz’s completely new fresh language, the spot-on urban Spanglish sci-fi of New Jersey also dies.
What a cliché, but like Oscar, that wonderful language, was too good to live. When the plot takes us back to the Old Country, ye olde magical realism of Diaz’s own Caribbean heritage rises up in the narration like an overgrown tropical plant. The same thing happened to Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated. Foer had a Russian-English hack translator who was a thigh slapper, but then Big Things Happened (cue WWII) and the whole thing went Chagall. It was disappointing, but I never loved Foer’s narrator, and I love Oscar. I’m heartbroken that he had to flare out, because of fuku, the “curse of the Caribbean.”
In my imagination Oscar lives. He’s older now, svelte, a jewel in the North Jersey Dominican scene. He’s a sci-fi writer, and a father, playing D&D with his nerdly sons and nerdette unicorn-clutching daughters and he often quotes his namesake, Oscar Wilde: “one’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”