I read about Junot Diaz sometime last year in the New York Times, and it was his Dominican heritage that caught my attention. Over the years I've befriended numerous Dominican immigrants who have always impressed me with their joie de vive at the same time surprised me with their machismo that they flaunt with such proud abandon. It was my dichotomous reaction to Dominicans that got me interested in reading Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I was curious to know what a Dominican writer had to say about the immigrant experience; something I'd read and heard extensively about from my Dominican friends, but never from a Dominican writer of Mr. Diaz's fame and caliber. Junot Diaz is perhaps the first ever Dominican writer to have hit the literary scene in such a big way with his debut novel, and is recognized as a contemporary writer with a very distinct writing style.
Diaz came to the US as a seven year old carrying memories of his homeland that he vividly brings alive in his writings. In this novel I was hoping to find a voice that was Diaz'z own. However, neither the womanizer narrator's nor the male protagonist's voice could be pinned down as the voice of Diaz. That may have been Diaz's strategy to have the reader guessing which of these two Dominican males was the typical one. It could also be that Diaz was trying to prove a point here that not all Dominican males are Yuniors, the narrator, who though madly in love with Lola, Oscar's sister, keeps his libido in full gear with other women. But then neither is Oscar the typical either as the overweight nerdy and serious romantic who is constantly involved in serious matters of the heart, unfortunately with women he can never have. Diaz has woven a web so wily where the reader hears the chronicles of a serious lovelorn Oscar from Yunior, a glib 'n easy college roommate of Oscar who is shocked by Oscar's depth of emotion and says he'd "never in... life met a Dominican like him...”
Diaz has produced a very humorous and gripping novel by providing a story that is both endearing and shocking. Oscar, the hero, and his encounters with love and relationships in general make for some humorous and touching reads. Meanwhile, the tapestry against which Oscar is presented is not only vast but also grim and sordid, and it has the capacity to shock. Oscar's story goes back two generations and across two countries to introduce us to his grandparents, the eminent Carbajals, and to his not so honorable parents, Belicia an unwed mother and his father a criminal in cahouts with Trujillo, one of the cruelest dictators in History. With an illustrious family tree such as this it is no surprise that the life of Oscar is both brief and wondrous, and it is to Mr. Diaz's credit that he spun into this 'wondrous' story a historic depth and meaning without alarming his reader. He kept the reader in easy suspended disbelief with his fluid sometimes raunchy language rife with colloquial spattering and identifiable contemporary references; even when he was taking the reader some eighty years back into the history of a small island once called Hispaniola.
Pure coincidence that this may be, but just before reading this novel, I read Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace which also spans across three generations and which includes a coming of age story of an individual within an immigrant family. What a contrast the two reading experiences proved to be! Where I finished Junot Diaz's novel over a weekend and in two sittings, Ghosh's novel took me all of three weeks and uncountable sittings to come to that last page. Storytelling is not an easy art, and writing is perhaps even more difficult, as the writer gets no immediate feedback like the story teller does, through eye contact and body language. Mr Diaz apparently sensed the pulse of his audience because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao proved a riveting and delightful read.
There is one question though that I would pose to Mr. Diaz if I ever got a chance: how does a novel like this bring him closer to his goal of 'community activism'? What will make this delectable piece of literature irresistible to the majority of fellow Dominican Americans who
"never thought writing was interesting or viable"?