Photograph by Lily Oei
WONDROUS WRITER: Junot Díaz deserved and got the Pulitzer for his novel.
Author Junot Díaz mashes words and worlds together in 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao'
By Don Hines
THE eponymous 1.5th–generation Dominican immigrant nerd in Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize–winning first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, embodies not the two red and blue Americas preoccupying us at election time but the crazy creolized black and blue Americas of the New World, such as Oscar's Dominican Republic birthplace, where ("for those of you," as the narrator, Oscar's reluctant friend Yunior, says "who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history"), Columbus brought communicable diseases and his brother built slave plantations, where in the last century U.S. Marines invaded twice to stabilize the beginning and end of dictator Rafael Trujillo's 30-year rule. Díaz will speak on Saturday in an event hosted by MACLA and the Center for Literary Arts at SJSU.
Oscar frames the story, but as Díaz explained in a talk at the Key West Literary Seminar last January, "[Oscar is] just a guy who wants to get laid and dance," yet he labors under "curse and doom of the New World ... fukú Americanus" carried by Oscar's mother, although she says little about it. Oscar emigrates from the Dominican Republic to poor central New Jersey, peaks as a Latin lover at age 7, then forlornly devours Dungeons and Dragons, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Stephen King and food. He is a "GhettoNerd," who the narrator says, "wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber" during the Reagan years. "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like?" asks Yunior. "Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto." Yet he still loved the ladies. "Oscar's idea of G was to talk about role-playing games ... he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!"
Oscar is the least-appealing central character since Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, but Oscar is merely the beginning and end of the story. The novel deepens in flashbacks from the horror of nerd adolescence in ghetto Jersey to the terror of Dominican teenage life under Trujillo, where relatives suddenly disappear after a neighbor reports a mild criticism of the "failed Cattle-thief" Trujillo, where the dictator had a taste for young culo (ass). "Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor," says Yunior. "To keep a beautiful girl from him was like keeping the ring from Sauron." As a teenager on the island, Oscar's mother "had the inchoate longings of nearly every adolescent escapist, of an entire generation, but I ask you: So fucking what?" says Yunior. "No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of ... Trujillo ... the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated."
To leaven the murders and beatings in the DR and the quotidian disappointments of ghetto life in New Jersey, Yunior the narrator mixes profane Spanglish, macho Dominican bravado and Dominican history into the allusions to Marvel comics, Jack Kirby, Star Wars, Dr. Who and Ren and Stimpy. Yunior compares a beatdown of Oscar to "one of those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels: endless." The novel's mixture of high and low, north and south, tragedy and rueful laughter, old-school Hispanic parents and punk-rock kids has no peer in contemporary literature. The novel is as epochal as Los Brothers Hernandez's Love and Rockets comics. Díaz intentionally creolizes the language—three different types of Spanish, Jersey hip-hop, grad-school lit crit—to see "how many different registers of what we call English can be sustained before it breaks apart." He succeeds resoundingly. Believe the hype.
JUNOT DÍAZ appears on Saturday (Sept. 20) at 7pm at the SJSU University Theatre in an event co-sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts and MACLA. Free. (408.924.4600 or 408.998.2783)
Junot Díaz's appearance at the Key West Literary Seminar can be heard here: http://www.kwls.org/lit/podcasts/2008/01/junot_diaz_january_18_2008.cfm
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