The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

On Christmas day, my friend, the Nuyorican goddess Liz Ramirez-Weaver saw me looking at Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. "It's good," she said. "You should borrow it."

So I jammed it in my ditty bag along with copies of Hanslick's On the Musically Beautiful and Alperson's introduction to the philosophy of music, What is Music? that her husband Eric had pressed on me. (Serious guy, Eric—I had to fight off his offer of Nietzche's thoughts on music: "Although I have to admit, it reads better in German." BMAFG!)

Of course, TBWLOOW languished in my bag until I saw it keep cropping up on best of 2007 lists. So when I went into town the other day to lunch with PR guru Jonathan Scull and long-time email correspondent (and all-round nice guy) Bill Leebens, I grabbed the book and started reading on the train.

Where an ordinary book would have a dedication, TBWLOOW begins with a literary quotation:

"Of what import are brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus?"
Fantastic Four
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
(Vol. 1, No. 49, April 1966

If you are, like me, as big a nerd as Oscar Wao, you immediately recognize from the precision of this citation that Diaz is one of us, one of us! Leaving out the alliterative nickname that Stan Lee bestowed on everyone (and that Kirby, in particular, disliked), the recognition that the Fantastic Four's Vol. 1 lasted five years, knowing which issue introduced Galactus—those are secret handshakes to my tribe of scorned outcasts.

Oscar Wao, it turns out, is an outcast in almost every way. He's a Dominican-born American growing up in Patterson, NJ. He's fat, has coke-bottle glasses, spends hours creating role-playing games, actually cried when Rich Hunter hooked up with Lisa in Robotech Macross (his second favorite anime), and can't chat up girls ("has no game," says Yunior, the narrator)—this last so unusual among Dominican males that his relatives wonder if he's really from the DR. TBWLOOW belongs to that most American genre, the coming of age novel about alienation.

The golden age for those was the post-WWII novels written by American Jews, but I think we're now seeing a new era (perhaps the diamond age), with books like Frank Chin's unjustly overlooked Donald Duk, Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, and TBWLOOW, of course.

TBWLOOW is profound, profane, and hilarious. The preface is Yunior's rant about fukú, the Dominican version of the Fates—a curse that worms its way into every Dominican family and anyone who messes with the Dominican Republic—starting with "the Admiral," who remains so hated that even mentioning his name will bring down fukyú upon the utterer.

"...it's important to remember fukú doesn't always strike like lightning. Sometimes it works patiently, drowning a nigger by degrees, like with the Admiral or the US in paddies outside of Saigon. Sometimes it's slow and sometimes it's fast. It's doom-ish in that way, makes it harder to put a finger on, to brace yourself against. But be assured: like Darkseid's Omega Effect, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always—and I mean always—gets its man."

The preface, with its multi-page footnotes and casual mastery of pop culture, is such a joy to read that I was twitching and cackling on the subway like I was having a fit, which is not bad strategy for getting a seat by yourself. I ended up being late for lunch with Jonathan and Bill because I missed my stop and had to catch another train downtown.

And it gets better!

Blog of a Bookslut's Jessa Crispin was obviously as taken by the concept of fukú as I was, since she cites it in her wonderful September, 2007 interview with Diaz.

The short story that morphed into the book's first chapter was printed in The New Yorker back in 2000. "It has been a long wait," said Miz Liz.

But oh so worth it.

Warning to CES attendees: "I'm so high on this book that I will probably still be blabbing about it next week.

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