Life is not easy for Oscar Wao. He's a grossly overweight nerd with a sci-fi writing jones and the social skills of a three-toed sloth. If that's not enough of a burden for a young man with testosterone coursing through his system, Oscar also has the regrettable habit of falling headlong in love with a litany of women. Sometimes all it takes is a brief encounter on a bus and Oscar's heart runs aflutter.

We know Oscar is doomed from the book's title, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but what the reader might not be prepared for is the whopping scope of Junot Diaz's highly entertaining first novel. Oscar is the launching pad for a rollicking family saga that examines a myriad of places and issues, among them life in the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, Rutgers University, immigration, poverty, politics, a family curse and, yes, the curious layers of unrequited love.

Relegated to secondary status through generations of sexism, the real heroes of this novel are the women. D’az intricately traces the tumult in the lives of Oscar's sister Lola and their dazzling mother Belicia. As we become familiar with their history, Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic, where he finds the love of his brief life, the prostitute living across the street. Somehow this talented author makes it all plausible.

Upon the release of his short-story collection, Drown, in 1996, Diaz's distinctive voice, which interspersed Spanish with American street lingo, made him a new literary star. His first novel, arriving a decade later, proves well worth waiting for. The real entertainment is the marvel of Diaz's voice, which is hip, high-energy, multilingual and often hysterically funny. Diaz turns in a bravura performance that will win him new fans and thrill those of us who celebrated his story collection. Now we can only hope it won't be another 10 years before his next book.

Michael Lee is the author of the essay collection In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot.

 

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