TBR: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This week’s book is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz.  It’s gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews and deservingly so.  It’s funny, smart, educational (the footnotes provide a capsule review of 20th century Dominican history), profane, and tender.   

Ten years ago, my parents gave me as a Hanukkah present Diaz’s first book, Drown, a collection of short stories.  I know that I thought they were good, but I can’t quite remember anything that happened in any of them.  They were New Yorker-type short stories, albeit with a working-class Dominican flavor, full of what Michael Chabon describes in his afterward to Gentlemen of the Road* as "the fates of contemporary short-story characters– disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace."  The Publisher’s Weekly review of Drown quoted on the Amazon page refers to "Diaz’s restrained prose."

Well, Diaz’s prose in Oscar Wao is anything but restrained.  It gleefully jumps from English to Spanish and back in the course of a sentence, nimbly weaving in references to science fiction, comic books, and Oscar Wilde.  And his characters suffer very non-New Yorker-ish fates — torture, imprisonment, a suicide attempt, kidnappings.  And in spite of all that, it’s still a fun read, mostly due to that irrepressible narrative voice.

Is the book perfect?  No.  It doesn’t quite deliver as much as it promises (but it promises more than most).  I would have liked more emphasis on Oscar and his sister, and even their mother in the present day, and a little less on his mother as a young girl.  But I’d definitely recommend it.

* Gentlemen of the Road, on the other hand, was quite the disappointment.  I love the idea of Jews with Swords, but there’s nothing in the book that makes you know that the characters are Jewish other than Chabon’s statement that they are.  By contrast, in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he really thought through what a mid-twentieth-century Eastern European Jewish culture would look like transplanted to Alaska.

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