Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to Date a Brown Boy

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Penguin Group, 2007) 340 pages

This novel is a dazzling mixture of the profane and the eloquent, ostensibly about the life of "ghetto nerd" Oscar De Leon and the fuku (family curse) which hangs over his mother's family, the Cabrals, and who aspires to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. But it is much more: a history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo's reign (the ominous historical figure of Trujillo plays a significant role in the book and the life of the Cabrals); a coming of age story; a shrewd-eyed analysis of male-female relations in Latin culture.

The characters are so familiar to me as a Sicilian that despite the extensive use of Spanish, I would swear these could be characters from my mother's village in Sicily. There is something so charming and disarming in Diaz's storytelling that I am instantly immersed in his fictional world. It's strange and nasty and vivid and utterly unlike anything I have ever read before.

At first, I found his extensive footnotes intrusive (they reminded me of David Foster Wallace - insert shudder here) but I soon appreciated the background it provided in the context of the story. Diaz claims that he was not influenced by Wallace but another writer. The spec lit references threw me a bit as well - they are extensive and often unexplained. It's such a foreign world for me as a reader but it came together in an odd and refreshing way.

The story is told through the viewpoint of a number of characters: Oscar, his sister Lola, their mother Beli, Lola's friend Yunior.

Oscar is a collection of neurotic teenage obsessions: girls and sex, his enormous weight, his writing, the sci fi and speculative fiction canon. Except for the first obsession, he appears an unassimilated and strange quantity growing up in Paterson, NJ. A Latino without machismo, all brain and unfulfilled libido with nowhere to go ...

Lola, sexy and pretty and very much like her mother Beli, chafes under the yoke of trying to be the perfect Dominican daughter and so rebels in various ways: goth, punk, runaway, prodigal daughter. These passages are convincingly written. Lola strikes a strident and rebellious chord in me as a bit of a teenage nightmare myself. 

Beli too suffers a tortured history which likely has driven her more than a little mad and which she unsparingly inflicts on her two children - orphaned by the machinations of Trujillo's henchman; shuffled from one parasitic family member to another until the age of nine; she is finally adopted by her father's cousin La Inca. She becomes enamored with, and impregnated by, a big time gangster with familial ties to Trujillo. When her pregnancy is discovered, she is beaten within an inch of her life, miraculously recovers and then is ferreted away by La Inca to the American paradise of New Jersey. The fate of Beli's parents Abelard and Socorro are no less complex and disturbing.

The teenage Oscar follows sister Lola to Rutgers University in New Jersey (Diaz' real alma mater) hoping for redemption from geekhood, from virginity, from his overwhelming braininess which overshadows everything in his psyche. This never happens. He returns to New Jersey with his virginity intact and takes up teaching back at Don Bosco Tech, the all boys Catholic high school he attended to observe the geeks that he still resembles tortured by the "cool" kids.

Yunior, while involved with Lola, attempts to mold Oscar into a more "manly" specimen at Rutgers so that it might alleviate his girl problems but Oscar, whom I would define as always romantically "fighting out of his weight class" habitually picks girls who would never consent to be with him. This drives him to despair.

Eventually, he returns to the DR for a summer to meet his fate. It involves, as one can imagine, a woman, older, more seasoned and attached to a very dangerous individual. Hence, we finally learn the meaning of the word "brief" in the title.

Yunior mourns Oscar's fate, vows to change his life, marries, settles down. Months later Yunior receives a package containing an "unfinished space opera" written by Oscar and a directive that a second package will soon arrive which will "cure" the fuku which has afflicted the family. Yunior waits but the package never arrives.

Throughout, Diaz weaves the history of the DR and the murderous excesses of Trujillo - the murder of political dissidents such as the Mirabal sisters, the secret police, manipulations to cease the property and wealth of citizens that Trujillo coveted and the women that he wished to seduce - which recreates a world which we, in the West, know little of.
Post-script: Great lecture/question session with Diaz here, held at Google headquarters a few years ago. Also... some intriguing fiction entitled "How To Date A Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)" in The New Yorker here.

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