I just finished reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. This is his first novel — Drown, his 1996 book, was marketed as a short story collection, but he thinks of it as a novel. The central character, Oscar, is an overweight, computer game-addicted, Tolkien-idolizing Dominican American virgin. In addition to his voice, the story is told by his sister, Lola; his abusive mother, Belicia (who has a horrific past of her own); his aunt, La Inca; and his friend Yunior. The early part of the book has multiple, lengthy footnotes: irreverent, cynical snippets of Dominican history. There is Spanish scattered throughout; a diligent reader would get even more out of the book by consulting a dictionary frequently. (If Amazon’s Kindle wireless reading device had a Spanish as well as English dictionary, Oscar Wao would be a tempting download). I was caught up enough in the story to work around my sketchy-to-nonexistent Spanish, and go for approximate meaning.
» Read an interview with the Washington Post’s Jabari Asim, on the Barnes & Noble web site.
The characters’ voices are completely unique and compelling. Here’s Lola, describing her ongoing war with her mother:
Sick or not, dying or not, my mother wasn’t going to go down easily. She wasn’t una pendeja. I’d seen her slap grown men, push white police officers onto their asses, curse a whole group of bochincheras. She had raised me and my brother by herself, she had worked three jobs until she could buy this house we live in, she had survived being abandoned by my father, she had come from Santo Domingo all by herself and as a young girl she claimed to have been beaten, set on fire, left for dead. There was no way she was going to let me go without killing me first. Figurin de mierda, she called me. You think you’re someone but you ain’t nada. She dug hard, looking for my seams, wanting me to tear like always, but I didn’t weaken, I wasn’t going to. It was that feeling I had, that my life was waiting for me on the other side, that made me fearless. When she threw away my Smiths and Sisters of Mercy posters — Aqui yo no quiero maricones — I bought replacements. When she threatened to tear up my new clothes, I started keeping them in my locker and at Karen’s house… When she changed the locks on me… I would knock on Oscar’s window and he would let me in, scared because the next day my mother would run around the house screaming, Who the hell let that hija de la gran puta in the house? Who? Who? And Oscar would be at the breakfast table, stammering, I don’t know, Mami, I don’t.
Me and Lola were living up in the Heights, separate apartments — this was before the whitekids started their invasion, when you could walk the entire length of Upper Manhattan and not see a single yoga mat. Me and Lola weren’t doing that great. Plenty I could tell you, but that’s neither here nor there. All you need to know is that if we talked once a week we were lucky, even though we were nominally boyfriend and girlfriend. All my fault, of course. Couldn’t keep my rabo in my pants, even though she was the most beautiful f***ing girl in the world.
I found this book unforgettable, unputdownable. I can’t wait for his next one. I’m tempted to read or listen to it again, this time with a Spanish dictionary in hand.