Archive » September 27, 2007
By Shelly Lowenkopf
The Long Wait
August, 1996. First hardcover printing.
December, 1996. Already beginning to show up on best-of-the-year lists. No surprise, really, because some of the stories had already appeared in high-level publications such as The New Yorker and The Paris Review. The buzz was on.
The subject at hand, “Drown,” a collection of short stories by a young writer who had one ear in the Dominican Republic, the other against the thin walls of shanties and cheap apartments in the eastern reaches of New Jersey. Junot Diaz, the author, displayed an extraordinary vision of the life available in both venues, DR and NJ. He mixed the Spanish of the Caribbean with the racism and social imperatives of English-as-second-language classes, leavened by the desire to get on board the busses and trains leaving now for Success, USA.
Just over ten years later, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” the second work from Junot Diaz appears, igniting questions. Did the long hiatus between “Drown” and “Oscar Wao” have to do with Diaz being less confident with the novel format than with the short story? Had Diaz gone on a long slump in which he polished this second work into a gem that may have glowed in the stylistic darkness but not in the reader’s estimation? Had Diaz lost his edge, which was in many ways the edge of anger?
In fact, Diaz has approached the novel with the brio of a man expecting and succeeding in securing a taxi during rush hours in mid-town Manhattan. As Barnaby Conrad would put it, Diaz writes like a man who has caught and released the oldest, wisest trout in the stream, using a dry fly and a sly cast.
Using several narrative voices including that of Yunior, a significant player from the “Drown” collection (and obviously Diaz’s man in court), we are presented with a cast of remarkable characters including Oscar, the nerdy first-generation Dominican American who has two major goals in life, to become the Dominican Tolkein, writing compelling speculative fiction, and beyond falling in love, experience the culmination of being loved in return. Although his early years find him attractive enough, he begins to put on serious weight as well as a kind of stodgy formality that makes him all but unfit to live in the real world
Oscar’s older sister, Lola, is also a major presence, loving Oscar in that wonderful way that transcends all reason, and wanting for herself the freeing momentum of her culture, her class, and the personal traps she finds herself caught up in. One day, while working in a restaurant, Lola complains bitterly to a chum about an aborted attempt at connecting with a boy she wanted. “Forget him” Lola’s chum says. “Every desgraciado who walks in here is in love with you. You could have the whole maldito world if you wanted.” She pauses for a moment to think. The world! It was what she desired with her entire heart, but how could she achieve it?
A third and commanding presence is Beli, mother to Lola and Oscar, a driving, relentless relic of her own fantastic dreams, both in DR and in the US.
Without making actual appearances in the narrative, the former Dominican dictator Trujillo appears as a menacing shadow throughout, his personal peccadilloes as well as those of his inner circle applying the ongoing hurt on the people of DR, the country, and any sense of democratic dialogue. Trujillo is introduced in one of the many footnotes scattered through the text:
“For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history,” Diaz writes, “Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulatto who bleached his skin, wore platform shoe, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, The Failed Cattle Thief, and [a name the SBJ may agree with but will not countenance here], came to control nearly aspect of DR’s political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master.”
Yunior is often seen trying to make sense of things, bringing forth issues that puzzle him, sometimes confounded by the blank pages of history.
Diaz has more to say about the politics, bringing in actual participants of El Jefe’s regime, including one, most likely an invention, called The Gangster. Belicia, Lola and Oscar’s mother sent to live in DR to better come to grips with the demands and responsibilities of life, discovers instead that her mother and father, both intellectuals, were “disappeared” by Trujillo, becomes aware of her own powerfully burgeoning sexuality, and falls quite desperately in love with The Gangster, who, it painfully turns out, is married to a Trujillo sister.
Invention or not, The Gangster, like the enormous ensemble cast of this stunning novel, comes to life and does so in ways that help define the attitudes and hopes the Dominicans bring to the US.
Among the items brought over is a kind of mystical acceptance for and reverence of “fuku,” a doom or curse, more specifically the curse and doom of the New World. “We are all of us its [the fuku’s] children,” Yunior says, whether we know it or not.”
Indeed, Oscar believes the fuku on his family will cause him to die a virgin, although Yunior and Lola do their best to help him alter what seems an inexorable fate, a fate that includes being regarded by some of Oscar’s dorm chums when he reaches Rutgers as a lisped mockery of the name of Oscar Wilde.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a mesmerizing ride between the Caribbean and the Jersey shore, from one small town in one world to another small town in yet another place. It is a ride between generations, filled with the speed bumps of adversity, crossed purposes, betrayals, sudden epiphanies, and a way of dramatizing history. Told in a combination of Spanglish, street slang, and a format that bursts out of the usual narrative pattern for long-form fiction, it creates a dazzling sense of worlds—repeat, worlds—in transition, each trying to make sense of itself and others.
Yes, there is violence and temper and self-serving agenda run amok to the point where some readers will wonder why they are being asked to take the trouble to immerse themselves in these wrenching details. There is also humor, compassion and empathy.
If the driving spirit in “Drown” was the sense of Diaz’s anger, honed to a stylistic stiletto point, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is an amazingly literate attempt to get at the roots of the pain of existence and to forge some kind of sensible way for persons of different backgrounds to walk together through crowded halls and to ride together in pack trains without being at each other’s throat.
These wrenching details are the fabric of literature. Junot Diaz has pushed boundaries and his own anger away from himself and has moved incrementally to that goal Stephen Deadalus set himself at the close of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I go forth, Deadalus says, to encounter reality and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
Junot Diaz has done nothing less.
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