Junot Diaz — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

Setting: DR and New Jersey.

What it’s about: An immigrant family struggling to through of the legacy of dictatorship, and in a deeper sense, the dark history of the Caribbean. The story starts with a fat, nerdy American boy but gets very powerful when it tells the story of his family, unravelling a litany of injustices the narrator explains as an ancient curse that goes back to the original Spanish conquest of the Dominican Republic.

Why you should read it: I only got into this at the second reading. The tale of the main protagonist, the nerdy Oscar, did not grab me until I first read, later in the book, the central tale of his mother trying to fight her way out of poverty, and his grandfather’s Fall under the dictator despite keeping his head down and following “the Tao of Dictator Avoidance”.

Above all is the slangy, firey, rough prose, with DR’s history coiled through it in punchy footnotes and all delivered with tasty, obscure references to Oscar’s beloved Tolkien. But the fantasy is delivered in just the right quantity to make palatable the harsh story — the raw cocktail violence, the machismo, the mysogyny that would be too hard to swallow without the narrator’s swagger.

A mix of Bronx argot, Spanish and Tolkien and other pop culture, from comic books, video games and movies — a half century of brutal history told by a young American man on the front stoop:

The conservative family before their ruin display,

“A guardedness so Minas Tirith in la pequena that you’d need the whole of Mordor to overcome it”.

“When Gondolin falls, you don’t wait around for balrogs to tap on your door. You make fucking moves.”

Trujilo’s henchmen, footnotes tell us, are Nazgul, Balrogs, or Morgul lords, one of their wives sits in her house like “a shelob in her lair”

While on their own they may appear incongruous, coming as they do in between the two parts of the nerdy immigrant’s son lost using his fantasy references to understand the past, they appear wholly natural and a clever way to deal with the horror of dictatorship, and a way to juxtapose the safe evil of fantasy to the harser evil of real life, such as describing the violence unleashed when Trujillo is killed:

At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by a “great wind” and neatly “blown away” with no lasting consequence to our heroes: but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even as his death his evil lingered. Within hours of El Jefe dancing bien pegao with those twenty-seven bullets, his minions ran amok — fulfilling, as it were, his last will and vengence. A great darkness descended on the Island…Even a woman as potent as La Inca, who with the Elvish ring of her will had forged within Bani her own personal Lothlorien, knew that she could not protect the girl against a direct assault from the Eye.”

The best book from DR: Unless you prefer a more sentimental take on the Trujillo era in the shape of Julia Alvarez and her story of three sisters killed for standing up to the dictator in In a Time of Butterflies. It is much more composed and formal than TBWLOW.

Read this if you liked: Un prophet, the dark 2009 film by Jacques Audiard which has that same mix of gritty, cruel realism with a pinch of fantasy. And of course, any fantasy novel from Tolkien to Dune.

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