The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

At least twice weekly I am reminded of the scene from Airplane when we hear that memorable phrase “Oh stewardess, I speak jive.” The stewardess in question needed a certain patois translated for her into plain English. My co-workers often seek similar translation from yours truly. You see, friends, I happen to speak nerd. The truth is, I dabble – a sort of liason between the normal world and the realm of videogames, comic books, anime movies and command line computer users.  Two brothers in engineering, a childhood of videogames, a college roommate who traded VHS tapes of Japanese anime by mail – let’s just say I have some experience in the field. So in some ways I felt right at home reading Juno Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

In other ways I was, as the saying goes, out of my element. The story of Oscar Wao is both familiar and fantastical. We meet Oscar as a Dominican Adolescent. An overweight adolescent, who as I suggested earlier is deeply involved in the overlapping worlds of science fiction, video games and alternate reality. Oscar is painfully awkward, desparately lonely and eternally in search of, shall we say, female companionship. Complicating this is Oscar’s nationality. You see, Oscar is Dominican, a people who’s males our narrator makes clear pride themselves on their libidinous prowess.

Indeed our narrator is just one such libidinous Dominican male. And the Dominican angle is where Diaz lays it on thick, heaping overlapping layers of meaning on to Oscar’s ample framed body and just as frail psyche. Politics, social commentary, economic disparity, violence and power all rear their heads as we follow Oscar from the projects, to college, to his prominent Dominican Relatives back home. Overshadowing the story are Oscar’s inimitable, once-beautiful, mother and the Baddest of all Baddies for the Dominican characters, Dictator Rafael Trujillo.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a story of dislocation and a bittersweet love song to a country and a people. Trujillo and Oscar’s indomitable mother are just as much the subject of the book as Oscar himself. Through the histories of these three individuals Diaz traces what it means to have and lose your nationality, he lays out the puzzle of being a minority among minorities, and he serenades us about a flawed but beautiful country forgotten and abandoned by Americans – Diaz’ primary audience. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does not – as the title and cover art confirm – end well for Oscar. But the book is a satisfying read, for who among us has not had his or her life shaped by tragedy. Plus, you just might learn something about Klingons, The Watchmen, or the Dominican Republic.

One Response to “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

  1. Walter Says:

    Working in a bookstore, it was not so much descriptions of books or book covers that stuck in my mind as simply names of authors. I always thought Junot Diaz had a cool name.

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