- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Faber, 340 pp, £12.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 17955 8
Unless you’re the jealous type, it’s fun to read reviews of Junot Díaz in mainstream American papers. There may not be an American writer alive whose ratio of positive to negative press is more favourable; critics do backflips for the guy. Unfortunately, given the corporate prudery of their employers, they can’t quote his most perfervid prose. I offer this from his new novel, a riff on a henchman of the Dominican dictator Trujillo:
I mean, what straight middle-aged brother has not attempted to regenerate himself through the alchemy of young pussy and … Beli had some of the finest pussy around. The sexy isthmus of her waist alone could have launched a thousand yolas, and while the upper-class boys might have had their issues with her, the Gangster was a man of the world, had fucked more prietas than you could count. He didn’t care about that shit. What he wanted was to suck Beli’s enormous breasts, to fuck her pussy until it was a mango-juice swamp … As the viejos say, clavo saca clavo.
After seven years of George Bush’s America, where the official language has become crude and reductive and festers with lies, it’s refreshing to read language that’s both sharp and expansive, and crackles with a quality that feels like the unvarnished truth. Even – perhaps especially – if it makes you reach for your Spanish dictionary.
The sense of expansiveness that Díaz achieves in language both street slang and grad school (sexy isthmus!) is an awfully neat trick and rarely replicated. It’s also a concerted push into territory that was trodden less certainly in Drown (1996), his debut hybrid of novel and stories, in which he examined the New Jersey Dominican diaspora with the help of a multiplicity of narrators. One of them was Yunior, a pool-table delivery boy trying to stay afloat in his dead-end job. In ‘Edison, New Jersey’, he tells of an attempt to deliver a table to a man who never answers his door:
I take a more philosophical approach; I walk over to the ditch that has been cut next to the road, a drainage pipe half-filled with water, and sit down. I smoke and watch a mama duck and her three ducklings scavenge the grassy bank and then float downstream like they’re on the same string. Beautiful, I say but Wayne doesn’t hear. He’s banging on the door with a staple gun.
This is good, straight-ahead prose, and the story Yunior tells is as powerful in its silences as it is in its surface. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz’s long-awaited second book, the surface is much more jagged, more inflected with a hip-hop beat, fonder of Spanish idioms. What’s curious about this is that the narrator is again Yunior, although it’s some time before we learn that fact. The dude has found a new register.
Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and emigrated to America when he was six. His family lived in New Jersey, and he went to Rutgers and then Cornell. He worked as a dishwasher and a steelworker, among other things, before Drown appeared and transformed his life. He now teaches creative writing at MIT.