The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

LIBRARY (284,285) by MICHAEL DUMONTIER AND NEIL FARBER

First edition provenance: Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007).

Excerpt provenance: Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007).

Introduction to the Selection by Janice Rim:

Photo by Ted Partin

Junot Díaz (1968-) is a modern poet, spitting Spanglish verses reminiscent of JRR Tolkien (the references), David Foster Wallace (the footnotes), and Kanye West (yep). Nerds rejoice! He is very much a product of his, our time. Moving to the US/New Jersey with his parents at age six from the Dominican Republic, Díaz remembers growing up as a reverse Batman. “When I became my masked identity I was this incredible little nerd, but in the real world I had to be this tough kid from the neighborhood,” he tells NYMag. And common to his work is this theme of the Outcast, the immigrant experience, the “Diaspora¹ engine” (217).

In particular, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an ensemble work centering on Oscar, a fat, nerdy Dominican-American trying to get some/any action, from the point of view of Yunior. Yunior, a Díaz regular who shows up in all his novels, is from the hard streets of New Jersey with the language and gait to match; his problem is that there are too many girls, too little time. Yunior archives Oscar’s journals through the novel and focuses on O’s entire lineage: sister Lola (tough and beautiful and the love of Yunior’s life), mother Belicia (tough and beautiful), grandmother La Inca (who adopts Beli), to Beli’s father, Abelard Luis Cabral (simply unlucky).

Character illustrations from the Chinese version of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Character illustrations from the Chinese version of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The title pretty much gives away the plot: our hero Oscar’s life will be brief, will be wondrous. The novel unfolds from the comic portrait of second-generation Oscar and his obsession with fukú, the ancient Dominican curse of bad luck, but soon becomes a harrowing, often-brutal tale of Dominican history and familial history. We delve through decades, from Oscar’s obsession with anime moves, to secret police raids in Santo Domingo, to the reign of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, “the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated” (80), to murder and tragedy. In the end, the novel becomes an epic of the de León family, from Dominicana to Americana as Yunior shifts each chapter from character-to-character. Most notably, we are treated to the very different worlds, made potent by Diaz’s language, of Beli’s America, Oscar and Lola’s America, Aberlard’s Dominican Republic, Beli’s Dominican Republic, to Oscar and Lola’s Dominican Republic.

Oscar and Lola’s Paterson, NJ is the hard ghetto America often depicted by Hollywood and real life; most evident of this America comes through Yunior (and Díaz)’s language. Sometimes too rough, often hilarious, always seductive. Diaz himself later states, “Yunior makes the darkness of the book even darker.” Grandfather Aberlard’s La Vega, “before Diaspora” (211), on the other spectrum is lush and prosperous. His “fourteen-room house… [is] bounded by groves of almonds and dwarf mangos” (212) with five full-time servants and a dozen horses; Abelard Luis Cabral is the height of our story in wealth. Yet nothing stays the same. After attempting to save his beautiful daughter from Trujillo rape, he is sentenced to 18 years in prison and it is here that we also reach a low in humanity: torture, feces in the eyes, etc, leaving his last daughter Beli to grow up on the scary other side of town. She is later taken in by La Inca, Abelard’s cousin, and is allowed a chance at schooling and love. Oscar, on the other hand, is whipped back by desire to the new DR that he meets/falls in love with puta/prostitute Ybón and ultimately also meets death via her Dominican cop boyfriend. The plot and economic statuses of our family members are in a constant state of flux, oscillating between these different worlds, between the past and the present, between “before Diaspora” and post Diaspora.

Paterson, NJ

Díaz describes Diaspora as an engine (217), a powerful yet volatile and inevitable force, much like Fate or Love. These forces become the engine that spark the understanding of different histories, as well as the intentional transformation of identities. Oscar Wao is the search for this identity transformation (loser to non-loser, Dominican to American, American to Dominican) through place and locale.

1. Diaspora is the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.
 

Excerpt 1 Beli’s DR (145-146):

They drove east. In those days the cities hadn’t yet metastasized into kaiju, menacing one another with smoking, teeming tendrils of shanties; in those days their limits were a Corbusian dream; the urban dropped off, as precipitous as a beat, one second you were deep in the twentieth century (well, the twentieth century of the Third World) and the next you’d find yourself plunged 180 years into rolling fields of cane. The transition between these states was some real-time machine-type shit. The moon, it has been reported, was full, and the light that rained down cast the leaves of the eucalyptuses into spectral coin.

The world outside so beautiful, but inside the car . . .

Excerpt 2 Aberlard’s DR (211-213):

Abelard Luis Cabral was Oscar and Lola’s grandfather, a surgeon who had studied in Mexico City in the Lázaro Cárdenas years and in the mid-1940s, before any of us were even born, a man of considerable standing in La Vega. Un hombre muy serio, muy educado y muy bien plantado.

(You can already see where this is headed.)

In those long-ago days—before delincuencia and bank failures, before Diaspora—the Cabrals were numbered among the High of the Land. They were not as filthy-rich or as historically significant as the Ral Cabrals of Santiago, but they weren’t too shabby a cadet branch, either. In La Vega, where the family had lived since 1791, they were practically royalty, as much a landmark as La Casa Amarilla and the Río Camú; neighbors spoke of the fourteen-room house that Abelard’s father had built, Casa Hatüey,²³ a rambling oft-expanded villa eclectic whose original stone core had been transformed into Abelard’s study, a house bounded by groves of almonds and dwarf mangos; there was also the modern Art Deco apartment in Santiago, where Abelard often spent his weekends attending the family businesses; the freshly refurbished stables that could have comfortably billeted a dozen horses; the horses themselves: six Berbers with skin like vellum; and of course the five full-time servants (of the rayano variety). While the rest of the country in that period subsisted on rocks and scraps of yuca and were host to endless coils of intestinal worms, the Cabrals dined on pastas and sweet Italian sausages, scraped Jalisco silver on flatware from Beleek. A surgeon’s income was a fine thing but Abelard’s portfolio (if such things existed in those days) was the real source of the family wealth: from his hateful, cantankerous father (now dead) Abelard had inherited a pair of prosperous supermercados in Santiago, a cement factory, and titles to a string of fincas in the Septrionales.

23. Hatüey, in case you’ve forgotten, was the Taino Ho Chi Minh. When the Spaniards were committing First Genocide in the Dominican Republic, Hatüey left the Island and canoed to Cuba, looking for reinforcements, his voyage a precursor to the trip Máximo Gómez would take almost three hundred years later.
Casa Hatüey was named Hatüey because in Times Past it supposedly had been owned by a descendant of the priest who tried to baptize Hatüey right before the Spaniards burned him at the stake. (What Hatüey said on that pyre is a legend in itself: Are there white people in Heaven? Then I’d rather go to Hell.) History, however, has not been kind to Hatüey. Unless something changes ASAP he will go out like his camarada Crazy Horse. Coffled to a beer, in a country not his own.
 

Excerpt 3 Oscar’s DR (217-272):

Every summer Santo Domingo slaps the Diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can; airports choke with the overdressed; necks and luggage carousels groan under the accumulated weight of that year’s cadenas and paquetes, and pilots fear for their planes—overburdened beyond belief—and for themselves; restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, malecones, beaches, resorts, hotels, moteles, extra rooms, barrios, colonias, campos, ingenios swarm with quisqueyanos from the world over. Like someone had sounded a general reverse evacuation order: Back home, everybody! Back home! From Washington Heights to Roma, from Perth Amboy to Tokyo, from Brijeporr to Amsterdam, from Lawrence to San Juan; this is when basic thermodynamic principle gets modified so that reality can now reflect a final aspect, the picking-up of big-assed girls and the taking of said to moteles; it’s one big party; one big party for everybody but the poor, the dark, the jobless, the sick, the Haitian, their children, the bateys, the kids that certain Canadian, American, German, and Italian tourists love to rape—yes, sir, nothing like a Santo Domingo summer. And so for the first time in years Oscar said, My elder spirits have been talking to me, Ma. I think I might accompany you. He was imagining himself in the middle of all that ass-getting, imagining himself in love with an Island girl. (A brother can’t be wrong forever, can he?)

So abrupt a change in policy was this that even Lola quizzed him about it. You never go to Santo Domingo.

He shrugged. I guess I want to try something new.

Excerpt 4 Oscar’s DR (273-278):

The beat-you-down heat was the same, and so was the fecund tropical smell that he had never forgotten, that to him was more evocative than any madeleine, and likewise the air pollution and the thousands of motos and cars and dilapidated trucks on the roads and the clusters of peddlers at every traffic light (so dark, he noticed, and his mother said, dismissively, Maldito haitianos) and people walking languidly with nothing to shade them from the sun and the buses that charged past so overflowing with passengers that from the outside they looked like they were making a rush delivery of spare limbs to some faroff war and the general ruination of so many of the buildings as if Santo Domingo was the place that crumbled crippled concrete shells came to die—and the hunger on some of the kids’ faces, can’t forget that—but also it seemed in many places like a whole new country was materializing atop the ruins of the old one: there were now better roads and nicer vehicles and brand ínew luxury air-conditioned buses plying the longer routes to the Cibao and beyond and U.S. fast-food restaurants (Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King) and local ones whose names and logos he did not recognize (Pollos Victorina and El Provocón No. 4) and traffic lights everywhere that nobody seemed to heed. Biggest change of all? A few years back La Inca had moved her entire operation to La Capital—we’re getting too big for Baní—and now the family had a new house in Mirador Norte and six bakeries throughout the city’s outer zones. We’re capitaleños, his cousin, Pedro Pablo (who had picked them up at the airport), announced proudly.

After his initial homecoming week, after he’d been taken to a bunch of sights by his cousins, after he’d gotten somewhat used to the scorching weather and the surprise of waking up to the roosters and being called Huáscar by everybody (that was his Dominican name, something else he’d forgotten), after he refused to succumb to that whisper that all long-term immigrants carry inside themselves, the whisper that says You do not belong, after he’d gone to about fifty clubs and because he couldn’t dance salsa, merengue, or bachata had sat and drunk Presidentes while Lola and his cousins burned holes in the floor, after he’d explained to people a hundred times that he’d been separated from his sister at birth, after he spent a couple of quiet mornings on his own, writing, after he’d given out all his taxi money to beggars and had to call his cousin Pedro Pablo to pick him up, after he’d watched shirtless shoeless seven-year-olds fighting each other for the scraps he’d left on his plate at an outdoor café, after his mother took them all to dinner in the Zona Colonial and the waiters kept looking at their party askance (Watch out, Mom, Lola said, they probably think you’re Haitian—La única haitiana aquí eres tú, mi amor, she retorted), after a skeletal vieja grabbed both his hands and begged him for a penny, after his sister had said, You think that’s bad, you should see the bateys, after he’d spent a day in Baní (the campo where La Inca had been raised) and he’d taken a dump in a latrine and wiped his ass with a corn cob—now that’s entertainment, he wrote in his journal—after he’d gotten somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, the Xica da Silva novelas where homegirl got naked every five seconds that Lola and his female cousins were cracked on, the afternoon walks on the Conde, the mind-boggling poverty, the snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks that were the barrios populares, the masses of niggers he waded through every day who ran him over if he stood still, the skinny watchmen standing in front of stores with their brokedown shotguns, the music, the raunchy jokes heard on the streets, the mind-boggling poverty, being piledrived into the corner of a concho by the combined weight of four other customers, the music, the new tunnels driving down into the bauxite earth, the signs that banned donkey carts from the same tunnels—after he’d gone to Boca Chica and Villa Mella and eaten so much chicharrones he had to throw up on the side of the road—now that, his tío Rudolfo said, is entertainment—after his tío Carlos Moya berated him for having stayed away so long, after his abuela berated him for having stayed away so long, after his cousins berated him for having stayed away so long, after he saw again the unforgettable beauty of the Cibao, after he heard the stories about his mother, after he stopped marveling at the amount of political propaganda plastered up on every spare wall—ladrones, his mother announced, one and all—after the touched-in-the-head tío who’d been tortured during Balaguer’s reign came over and got into a heated political argument with Carlos Moya (after which they both got drunk), after he’d caught his first sunburn in Boca Chica, after he’d swum in the Caribbean, after tío Rudolfo had gotten him blasted on mamajuana de marisco, after he’d seen his first Haitians kicked off a guagua because niggers claimed they “smelled,” after he’d nearly gone nuts over all the bellezas he saw, after he helped his mother install two new air conditioners and crushed his finger so bad he had dark blood under the nail, after all the gifts they’d brought had been properly distributed, after Lola introduced him to the boyfriend she’d dated as a teenager, now a capitaleño as well, after he’d seen the pictures of Lola in her private-school uniform, a tall muchacha with heartbreak eyes, after he’d brought flowers to his abuela’s number-one servant’s grave who had taken care of him when he was little, after he had diarrhea so bad his mouth watered before each detonation, after he’d visited all the rinky-dink museums in the capital with his sister, after he stopped being dismayed that everybody called him gordo (and, worse, gringo), after he’d been overcharged for almost everything he wanted to buy, after La Inca prayed over him nearly every morning, after he caught a cold because his abuela set the air conditioner in his room so high, he decided suddenly and without warning to stay on the Island for the rest of the summer with his mother and his tío. Not to go home with Lola. It was a decision that came to him one night on the Malecón, while staring out over the ocean. What do I have waiting for me in Paterson? he wanted to know.

Excerpt 4 An exchange between Oscar and his prostitute girlfriend Ybón (318):

She started scribbling back notes and passed them to him at the club, or had them mailed to his house. Please, Oscar, I haven’t slept in a week. I don’t want you to end up hurt or dead. Go home.

But beautiful girl, above all beautiful girls, he wrote back. This is my home.

Your real home, mi amor.

A person can’t have two?

Bibliography:

Boris Kachka. “Junot Díaz Karate-Chops His Writer’s Block.” New York Magazine, August 24, 2007.

“Interview with Junot Díaz.” Goodreads, September 2012.

Michiko Kakutani. “Travails of an Outcast.” The New York Times, September 4, 2007.

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