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.
For young American short-story writers casting about for inspiration in the 1990s, two books showed the way. The first was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son (1992), a collection of autobiographical stories revolving around the misadventures of a character known mostly as Fuckhead. It mined Johnson’s life during his years as a drug addict in the 1970s and seemed to transcend, once and for all, the lingering influence of Raymond Carver on the form. Here was a writer who’d gone to the dark side, deep into madness, yet returned to sanity with his sense of humour intact. It appeared to many of us borderline holy that Johnson could write with such lack of swagger and self-pity about a guy making an absolute ruin of his life. The same was sometimes said of Carver, but Johnson made Carver seem lugubrious.
Then came Drown, which to a certain degree emulated Carver’s pared-down prose but took greater risks with form and voice. Cutting back and forth between stories from New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, the book offered a collage portrait of the Dominican diaspora and those left behind by it. The voices were sometimes raw and cynical, sometimes cool and dispassionate, and never for a moment dull or trite. The most memorable story was ‘How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie’, a brief instructional told in the second person:
Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator. If the girl’s from the Terrace stack the boxes behind the milk. If she’s from the Park or Society Hill hide the cheese in the cabinet above the oven, way up where she’ll never see. Leave yourself a reminder to get it out before morning or your moms will kick your ass. Take down any embarrassing photos of your family in the campo, especially the one with the half-naked kids dragging a goat on a rope leash. The kids are your cousins and by now are old enough to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Hide the pictures of yourself with an Afro. Make sure the bathroom is presentable. Put the basket with all the crapped-on toilet paper under the sink. Spray the bucket with Lysol, then close the cabinet.
Shower, comb, dress. Sit on the couch and watch TV. If she’s an outsider, her father will bring her, maybe her mother. Neither of them want her seeing any boys from the Terrace – people get stabbed in the Terrace – but she’s strong-headed and this time will get her way. If she’s a whitegirl you know you’ll at least get a hand job.
Here, encapsulated in two paragraphs, are some of the themes Díaz explored from various angles – immigrant shame, family bonds, proper behaviour and a desire to assimilate, the promise of sex – and they are among the themes he returns to in his new novel.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins with a seven-page disquisition on the fukú, ‘a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World … No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since.’ The rest of the novel relates how the fukú played out in the lives of one Dominican family, the de Leóns.
Oscar de León, the eponymous hero, is an overweight geek living in Paterson, New Jersey, obsessed with comic books, sci-fi novels and Japanimation. Yunior spends the beginning and the end of the book relating Oscar’s troubles with girls and his attempts to become ‘the Dominican Tolkien’. It turns out Oscar earned his nickname when Yunior, his college roommate at Rutgers, told him he ‘looked like that fat homo Oscar Wilde’, and an acquaintance misheard the name as Oscar Wao.
Oscar’s love of sci-fi and fantasy is the key motif in Yunior’s reminiscence. There are abundant references to comic-book masters both famous and obscure, as well as to genre novels and movies – more references, certainly, than I was familiar with. That Oscar views the world through such a lens makes perfect narrative sense. The tropes of time travel, disruptions in narrative continuity, heroes transported to alien and confusing worlds, match Oscar’s own sense of dislocation as a first-generation immigrant in America.
But the stories don’t vary. The long stretches of the novel with Oscar at their centre follow the same pattern over and over. He falls for a girl. He awkwardly pursues the girl. The girl either brushes him off or fails to see the romantic aspect of Oscar’s nerdy attention. Ultimately, Oscar’s heart is broken, and he returns to his trove of geek literature, geek comics and geek Japanimation for solace. Each time, the romantic rejection sends him further into despair. The result is a character who, for all his charming pathos, remains unsatisfyingly static. Díaz appears to want to turn Marx’s dictum on its head and repeat Oscar’s story first as farce and then as tragedy; but when the tragedy involves his falling for a Dominican prostitute, it rings a bit trite.
The middle section of the novel describes, more compellingly, the de León family history; it forms a brilliant novella of its own. Oscar’s grandfather Abelard was a successful doctor in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s reign. His main concern was for the safety of his daughters, given the dictator’s legendary and rapacious sexual interests. For a time Abelard managed to shield them from Trujillo’s sight, despite having to attend certain government functions during which the man himself invariably inquired after his family. The doctor’s comfortable upper-middle-class existence was shattered when, one night, drunk in the streets of Santo Domingo, he made a silly joke about Trujillo’s brutality. The joke made its way back to the dictator, and soon the doctor was nabbed by Trujillo’s security forces, imprisoned and sadistically tortured. This, for the de Leóns, is the origin of the fukú on the family, and it draws them, one by one, into their own confrontations with heartbreak and misery.
Yunior claims to remain agnostic on the existence of a family curse, yet he gestures towards it so often that it becomes a default explanation for just about every misstep and piece of bad luck suffered by the de Leóns. Thus the sweep of the narrative begins to mimic those genre stories so loved by Oscar, with a deus ex machina hovering over every plot turn. Yunior’s statement to the contrary – ‘Negro, please – this ain’t a fucking comic book!’, a bit of meta-narrative addressed directly to the reader – is an intentionally ironic challenge.
If the novel didn’t occasionally mimic a comic book, if it merely placed Oscar’s devotion to the form at an oblique angle to the narrative itself, then Yunior would not perhaps find himself so fond of the hyperbole and overstatement endemic to the genre. For all his blustering bravado – ‘and of course I had my slutties’ – Yunior, it seems, is telling the story as an act of contrition. He was the quintessential Latin Lothario, as deep into girls as Oscar was into Dungeons & Dragons, yet by the end of the tale it’s clear he feels a sense of shame and guilt. He threw away a love affair with Oscar’s sister Lola. He failed to rescue Oscar from self-destruction. His recompense involves making their struggles, and the struggles of their ancestors, seem super-heroic.
Thus Díaz clues us in on Yunior’s motives, even as Yunior hides them for so long. It’s a brilliant sleight of hand, except that Díaz overplays it. Not even the most minor character escapes exaltation, as seen here in a description of a boy called Jack Pujols, a schoolgirl crush of Oscar’s mother, Belicia:
Jack Pujols of course: the school’s handsomest (read: whitest) boy, a haughty slender melnibonian of pure European stock whose cheeks looked like they’d been knapped by a master and whose skin was unflawed by scar, mole, blemish, or hair, his small nipples were the pink perfect ovals of sliced salchicha … Jack, Eldest Son, Privileged Seed, Hijo Bello, Anointed One, revered by his female family members – and that endless monsoon-rain of praise and indulgence had quickened in him the bamboo of entitlement. He had the physical swagger of a boy twice his size and an unbearable loudmouthed cockiness that he drove into people like a metal spur. In the future he would throw his lot in with the Demon Balaguer [one of Trujillo’s heavies, and eventually leader of the Dominican Republic himself] and end up ambassador to Panama as his reward, but for the moment he was the school’s Apollo, its Mithra. The teachers, the staff, the girls, the boys, all threw petals of adoration beneath his finely arched feet: he was proof positive that God – the Great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! – does not love his children equally.
Such hyperventilation becomes a habit in Yunior’s retelling. In mid-20th-century Latin America, he argues, ‘a student was … an agent for change, a vibrating quantum string in the staid Newtonian universe.’ Oscar endures ‘the Götterdämmerung of beatdowns’ when he’s caught chasing the wrong girl. His aunt Jackie, who dies before Oscar is born, is described as the kind of girl ‘who could have found a positive side to a mustard-gas attack’. Again and again people’s personalities and experiences are described in the most extreme terms – almost as if they are comic-book characters themselves, not merely characters in a story that makes frequent reference to comic books. But while it’s easy to quibble with such characterisations, they illuminate the ambitiousness of the novel. For Díaz, the straddling of worlds is played out not only in the theme of the story but in its form as well. He straddles realism and fantasy, he seems to imply, because that’s how it feels to cross from the Dominican Republic to America, or vice versa – a straddler of worlds separated by an impossible chasm. He expands on and subverts the main narrative with numerous footnotes because so much needs explaining. He marries English and Spanish because his characters think and speak in both. He marries high culture and pop culture, referring to both Shakespeare and the heavy-metal band Judas Priest, because neither one is sufficient on its own to get at the complexity of immigrant identity.
Towards the end of his story, just before he sets off for the Dominican Republic again in one last ill-fated bid for love, Oscar finds himself back at his old high school in New Jersey, as a teacher this time. Yet he remains an outsider, as Yunior tells it:
Every day he watched the ‘cool’ kids torture the crap out of the fat, the ugly, the smart, the poor, the dark, the black, the unpopular, the African, the Indian, the Arab, the immigrant, the strange, the feminino, the gay – and in every one of these clashes he saw himself. In the old days it had been the whitekids who had been the chief tormentors, but now it was kids of colour who performed the necessaries. Sometimes he tried to reach out to the school’s whipping boys, offer them some words of comfort, You are not alone, you know, in this universe, but the last thing a freak wants is a helping hand from another freak … In a burst of enthusiasm he attempted to start a science-fiction and fantasy club, posted signs up in the halls, and for two Thursdays in a row he sat in his classroom after school, his favourite books laid out in an attractive pattern, listened to the roar of the receding footsteps in the halls, the occasional shout of Beam me up! and Nanoo-Nanoo! outside his door; then, after thirty minutes of nothing he collected his books, locked the room, and walked down those same halls, alone, his footsteps sounding strangely dainty.
This passage rather neatly encapsulates the virtues and deficiencies of Díaz’s approach to his characters. To the notion that ‘in every one of these clashes he saw himself,’ the question must be asked: could one person possibly identify that strongly with a dozen or a hundred different instances of callous behaviour? Perhaps. But then that person might also be construed as having a terminal case of victimology. Yet such questions are overwhelmed by the beautifully rendered scene of Oscar waiting in vain for a chance to reach those kids with whom he feels such kinship, a scene capped off with those five haunting words, ‘his footsteps sounding strangely dainty’. So it goes with the novel as a whole: instances of not-quite-believable grandiosity and overstatement here and there, which cannot fatally mar a story told with great sympathy and verve.