When I taught “Introduction to Literature” at Cal State Los Angeles, a campus where everyone, seemingly at least, is bilingual, I regularly taught Junot Diaz’s story collection Drown. I was impressed with all of the stories, but “Aguantando” stunned me. I would ask my students to read from it out loud in class. A dark-haired Latina student who had volunteered came to this passage:
Mami’s time away was never discussed, then or now. When she returned to us, five weeks later, she was thinner and darker and her hands were heavy with calluses.
. . . She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer as close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring me chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of the rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.
The student’s voice grew faint until she stopped reading altogether. I asked why she had stopped, and she replied in a near whisper, “I can’t read because I’m crying.”
Junot Diaz is the rare writer who can describe, no, share grief with restraint and sincerity (a skill that you don’t see coming out of MFA programs, where sincerity seemingly is for hicks or bumpkins or genre writers) so that it seems he’s writing the literary equivalent of fado or blues. Such is the case with his new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Even when he’s at his most comic, Diaz is sincere. The story, which unfurls at a furious pace, is told mostly by Yunior, who uncovers hard-won brutal truths and a secret history that explains the ordeal of the Fuku-cursed Cabral family. The Fuku, “the Curse and Doom of the New World,” starts with Columbus discovering the New World, and ends with the monstrous rule of Trujillo: “A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulatto who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery.”
Diaz’s broad erudition overwhelms you with concussive waves of academic learning, historical research and nerd/fan-boy knowledge, such as when he describes Beli, the mother of Oscar Wao, as having the “Breasts of Luba (35DDD),” a shout-out to Los Hermanos Hernandez’s amazing Luba, the ultrasexy matriarch of Palomar in their groundbreaking comic, Love and Rockets.
Diaz gives lots of shouts, as though recent developments in comic books and sci-fi have liberated him — nerds no longer need to be ashamed. He uses plentiful footnotes and asides, mostly expositions on Dominican history, but also many other things: Dune, Lord of the Rings, anime, Alice Coltrane, Puerto Rican goths. The footnotes are instructive and are often as entertaining as the narrative, or more so, even when they expand mushroomlike over the page.
Oscar, the novel’s would-be Latin lover, is more pootbutt than anything. He’s intriguing in his ultra-nerd/virgin learnedness, but hopeless and more sad-assed comic than tragic in his foreshadowed demise; a fat, helpless love-struck dude getting “kilt” by a jealous Dominican cop didn’t work for me nearly as well as the travails of Beli, his mother. Beli is the heart of the novel — she loves recklessly and suffers heroically:
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They’d been punching her and her right eye had puffed into a malignant slit, her right breast, so preposterously swollen that it looked like it would burst, her lip was split and something was wrong with her jar, she couldn’t swallow without causing herself excruciating shocks of pain. She cried out each time they struck her but she did not cry, entiendes? Her fierceness astounds me. She would not give them the pleasure.
Diaz’s use of the word nigger is interesting and a little confounding. He uses the term often, perhaps to establish a commonality between African-American popular culture and the Afro aspect of Dominican life. He may be searching for the English equivalent of moreno and negrito, but that particular word, especially in its pre-hip-hop spelling, is not up to conveying those shades of racial irony: The whole time the “Manhunter” was on, he writes, he kept expecting niggers to jump out with cameras and scream, “Surprise!” Once, nigger shocked, as in William Faulkner’s “Jesus is a nigger,” from “That Evening Sun,” or insulted, as in “Bugs squatted on long nigger legs,” from Hemingway’s “The Battler.” Now, for better or not, it has become so malleable that it may just be another way of saying “dude.”
The lives and histories revealed in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao depict colored folk who know what it is to be beaten down, to have close relatives murdered senselessly by political thugs or nonpolitical gangsters, folks who survive out of furious spite. For all of the artful complexity of language and narration, Diaz’s novel succeeds because of the obvious affection he has for these tragic figures. They will stay with the reader like a powerful Fuku.
THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO | By JUNOT DIAZ | Riverhead | 352 pages | $24.95 hardcover