Culo. Coño. Puta. Mariconcito. Coje that fea y metéselo! The number of obscenities that appear within the first twenty-five pages of Junot Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, makes it abundantly clear that he’s not writing for Oprah’s Book Club. At the very least, Winfrey would have to bone up on her four-letter Spanish before she could rubberstamp this book, because more than any other author writing today, Díaz sings straight to the heart of urban Spanglish, and he’s not waiting for outsiders to catch up. His Spanish is untranslated, as is his freestyle hip-hop slang. Clearly, he’s writing for his people—Dominicans on the island and around New York City—and as far as he’s concerned, everyone else is just listening in.
In 1997, Díaz told People magazine that Drown, the short-story collection that set his name in lights, “was like a hand of love out to the community.” Love is a word that appears in a lot of Díaz’s interviews, but his affection can be scorchingly unsentimental. Drown’s ten stories spotlight issues that the Latino community mostly likes to avoid: namely, its deep veins of homophobia, in fidelity, racism, sexism, and casual verbal abuse. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao adopts a similarly critical stance, but where Drown delivers its assessments with laconic restraint, Wao bellows them out with a carnivalesque mix of fantasy and gallows humor.
At the center of the novel sits Oscar de León, an obese, Walter Mitty–ish New Jersey “GhettoNerd” who is addicted to science fiction and aches desperately for a girlfriend. “He had secret loves all over town,” Oscar’s friend Yunior tells us, “the kind of curlyhaired big-bodied girls who wouldn’t have said boo to a loser like him but about whom he could not stop dreaming.” Oscar’s an antidote to the clichéd image of the Latin Lothario, yet almost every character in Wao regards his geeky, no-play ways as an unpardonable offense. You’re not Dominican, they tell him over and over again, as if to disown him. He becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes. “You ever eat toto?” one man asks him, referring to oral sex. “Probably the only thing you ain’t eaten, right?”
Oscar’s social torture reveals why Yunior and the rest of the men in Drown and Wao adopt such fierce, womanizing postures. Deviation from this machista stance invites brutality. (“We pick on our weak,” Díaz told Hispanic magazine.) Yet one of the most perceptive things about Díaz’s novel is the way it shows how machismo can crush both the men who don’t conform and those who do. As the action unfolds, Oscar’s buoyant imagination slides toward bitterness and depression while Yunior, who narrated several of the stories in Drown and proves he’s a real hombre in Wao by sport-fucking his way through Rutgers University, heads toward an equally bleak isolation. For most of the novel, both courses seem absolutely fixed— and that’s where Díaz’s brilliance shines.
So much contemporary fiction revolves around a kind of therapeutic epiphany, where the mere realization that a certain behavior is damaging is enough to catalyze a transformation. Life, we know, is more complicated than that. Metamorphosis is painful—it’s only when problems turn ruinous that most people can give it an honest try. Even then, the effort doesn’t often pan out. This is something that Díaz appears to understand innately, and it’s part of what makes Wao so hard to put down. (I myself opened it for the first time at eleven o’clock one night, thinking I’d read a few chapters before bed, and found myself still hungrily flipping pages at dawn.) Each of Wao’s major characters— Yunior; Oscar; his sister, Lola, and their mother, Belicia; Belicia’s father, Abelard—is pushed at some moment to disaster. Not all of them get through it alive.
For Belicia and Abelard, those moments arrive in the ’40s and ’60s, in the Dominican Republic, during Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-oneyear dictatorship. Trujillo, Díaz cracks in one of his many footnotes, was the DR’s “Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up. . . . Outstanding accomplishments include: the 1937 genocide against the Haitian and Haitian- Dominican community,” in which some thirty thousand people were murdered. Díaz, who was once addicted to sci-finovels himself, plays the Trujillo–Evil Master comparison for all it’s worth, studding Wao with references to J. R. R. Tolkien, Jack Kirby, and Alan Moore and suggesting (tongue firmly in cheek) that the DR’s whole bloody, impoverished history may be due to a “fukú,” or interstellar curse. Díaz, thus, combines heartbreaking realism with the wildest sort of comic-book fantasy, moving beyond the surrealism of Borges and Cortázar and the magical realism of Márquez and Allende to break new ground. Call it comix realism— it gives Díaz a tremendous verbal and emotional range.
Because Díaz moved to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic in 1975, when he was seven, because he grew up in Section 8 housing and worked all manner of blue-collar jobs, there has been a tendency among critics to portray him as a kind of outsider, a writer from the margins. But what makes him compelling are not just his flickering portraits of urban alienation but his rich sense of Dominican history, of community. “Way too often,” he told a Other Voices, “writers of color are, basically, nothing more than performers of their ‘otherness.’ I’m trying to figure out ways to disrupt that.” The way out has been lit by Toni Morrison, whom he has cited again and again as the most lasting influence on his work. “Morrison,” he explained to Black Issues Book Review, “is not attempting to translate black American culture for a white audience. . . . That in itself is revolutionary.” It’s a revolution that Díaz himself clearly intends to continue, in his own Latino, African, Dominican, Middleearth, X-Man way.
Marcela Valdes is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is at work on a book about Chile.