Many years ago when I thought that I might marry a woman from the Dominican Republic, I sat down and wrote an essay called “What would it mean to be Dominican?” Completely fearful, and wracked by questions of identity as it was, it was also honest. I’d lived in the DR for two years, hung with the Dominican diaspora in El Bronx (probably gave out a fair number visas to some) and felt comfortable with enough slang to actually use a phrase or two. Plus, I could baila un merengazo del diablo (doubters, you may cue Vince Vaughan: “Oh please, we both know I’m a phenomenal dancer.”)
My first month in Santo Domingo a friend sent me the fiction pages from a New Yorker with a story by Junot Diaz. The story was a portion of what became, about seven years later, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Seven years seems like a damn long time to write a book. People are calling TBWLOW an immigrant tale unlike any other, but the real difference is that unlike most novels that center around the immigrant experience when you read TBWLOW it doesn’t come across as one. Maybe it’s because the DR is only 3 hours by plane to NYC. Or maybe it’s that Dominicans aren’t culturally that different than Americans (note: it’s not culture to come up with names like Niyurkis or Rebaika). Or maybe it’s the writing.
The book takes about 3 days to read. You can’t read it slowly because the sentences (where they can actually be called sentences), mimic Dominican gunfire speech. Words, thoughts, ideas get cut off. It’s the way you say the word that matters, coñaso! Perhaps this really is today’s new literature — one that is a mix of brands, words that bitch-slap you with their power, and sentences that challenge you with brazen cultural references (not caring if you don’t share them). It’s rap brought into novel form — or maybe the other way around — but grounded in enough history and straight-up storytelling to mesmerize instead of confuse.
It’s clear that Diaz has been influenced by THE BROWN as well. Yes, the S. Asian world is something Diaz apparently knows enough about — dropping references to Desidom, including one of Oscar’s first friends named Al (real name: Alok), Shiva lingams, badmash, and more. You just know he dated a sister.
The book has footnotes throughout, serving in most cases to give the reader some history, which I found unnecessary having lived there — everyone knows the stories. It’s jarring, but thankfully the footnotes don’t dominate the rest of the book. Diaz weaves enough stories into stories that you can see why the writing process dragged out. I could just as easily have read about Oscar’s sister Lola, or the narrator Yunior, and enjoyed the book as much. The value and substance are, as always, the story itself, though if mentioning The Chronicles of Prydain, El Provocon, or the X-Men along the way can make you feel like you’re friends with the author then I’m all for it.
I won’t go into the what happens and why (the title tells you our hero is homeboy gone dead), but I found myself at the end wondering what comes next. See, living on an island, even one with stretches of gorgeous beaches and equally gorgeous women, is like living with a Christmas present. At some point there’s nothing left to unwrap. That’s the real fukú about being a Dominican.