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An Honest Book Review

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

We have a cart on the second floor of our building where professors put out books they are willing to cull from their shelves. Anyone can pick up one. Most are out-of-date textbooks or literary criticism from thirty years ago. Occasionally a novel in pristine condition shows up. I jump on it and figure if it's there, it must be unwanted by someone.

Because my department includes foreign language which also includes literature and culture, I snatched up a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in December. I knew one of my faculty had used it in his dissertation and presented on it, and, heh, it won the Pulitzer.

I read the first chapter and was not so much mystified but unsure why I should keep reading. A fat Dominican kid in New Jersey who can't get a girl friend and seems to have a crazy, hateful mother and beautiful, caring sister. OK. I'm in my sixties; do I really want to read about teenaged angst, Latino style?

Plus, there was a lot of language I don't like to get in my head, and I was watching The Irishman on Netflix at the same time so I heard my share of F-words. It's amazing how that word can be bent into all kind of grammatical and syntactical variations--verbs, adjectives, adverbs, nouns, subjects, predicates, objects, and various inflections. The constant use of the n- word slur seemed gratuitous, also. Apparently the darker the skin, the lower the class or expectations, in DR culture.

So, I saw the professor and said, "I picked it up. Not sure how I feel about it so far." "Oh," he responded. "It is my favorite book in the world." "Hum," I said. "I've just read the first chapter or so."

"Well, read it all and we'll talk about it."

I thus felt like I'd made a commitment, so I kept reading.

Oh, my word. I get it. After the first couple of chapters about Oscar de Leon, the POV shifts to his sister and then his mother, and then to the real narrator, Yunior (a stand-in for the author, probably). With the sister and mother I was drawn in; perhaps I'm just not in a male-oriented mindset right now.

It is an epic about the Dominican experience, history, and culture, told with only a few characters. The footnotes--odd in a novel--are a book unto themselves. The moving in and out of POVs and English to Spanish, and the literary/pop culture allusions provide a dizzying but rich fabric. One reading is not enough, but as I always say, I don't know when I'd get back to that second reading.

One thing that fascinated me was the return to themes from The Lord of the Rings. Is Oscar like a hobbit trying to bury the evil of his past, throw the ring (that makes him invisible to girls!) into Mordor? Trujillo is clearly Sauron. (I have a friend whose married name from one of her divorces was Trujillo; I don't think she knew about the connotations, but now she's married again.) Is the key that these "small people" are major characters--victims and heroes--of the epic that was Dominican history in the twentieth history--the genocide, the oppression, the refugees, the absolute power of the "dictatorist dictator of all dictatoring."

So, I recommend, but only to those who are serious readers of fiction who can bear with the language and sexual content (Oscar's quest to have sex for the first time is an overriding but actually superficial theme, one that leads to his death). There are probably resonant themes there to other American literature (maybe Roth?) that I don't know. I learned some vulgar Spanish words in the process.

But mostly, I learned empathy, which is one of the great lessons that fiction can teach us indirectly. "Teach" is the wrong word. The empathy comes into one's being through the immersion in the experience of people different from one. I would never know Oscar or his family in real life, not that way. Fiction introduces and makes us live with different kinds of people and reminds us our narrow world is just that, narrow, and the world is wide.

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