“The Brief Lackluster Career of Junot Diaz”

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”By Junot Diaz(Riverhead Hardcover)2.5 StarsOscar has a problem: he can’t get laid. That pretty much sums it up right there, or it could for the whole of the latest 344-page novel by Junot Diaz, the Dominican-American author of “Drown.” Since it was released in September, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” has been one of the most talked about books of the year. Famous for being the first writer to publish a book in Spanglish, his newest novel was also one of the most anticipated books of the year (“Drown” came out in 1996 and Diaz has since gone on to teach at MIT). It didn’t live up to the hype. Not especially compelling nor interesting, but not particularly banal or boring or bad either, the novel is the story of Oscar, an adolescent Do?minican-American living in Pater?son, NJ. The book also focuses on his family and their collected ancestors in the Dominican Republic and their involvement – told in cumbersome footnotes – with Rafael Trujillo, the U.S.-backed dictator of the Dominican Republic (of whom FDR once supposedly remarked, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”) from 1930 to 1961. Oscar is a fish out of water in Paterson, NJ. Not Dominican enough to be Dominican and perhaps too American for America. He is a bumbling, shy, fat, precocious kid – playing games like D&D, reading the “Lord of the Rings” and watching “Star Trek,” his dialogue dotted with word-of-the-day anachronisms and the names of distant, imaginary stormy realms – Mordor, the Death Star etc. He is an oaf, an underdog, a less potent Ignatius J. Riley from “A Confederacy of Dunces” and a reincarnation of the famous doomed archetype invented by Shakespeare in the form of Falstaff. He is also Diaz’s alter ego (Diaz himself is from New Jersey and is a connoisseur of comic book and sci-fi). Being able to write a novel in Spanglish is an impressive feat, don’t get me wrong. But Diaz’s tone in “Wao” is kitschy and older-brotherly, constantly shaking his head at Oscar, offering help at the impossible task of making Oscar a man, exemplified in Oscar’s cousins in Santo Domingo who offer to take him to whorehouses and work out with him, to help him get girls. Diaz’s prose is peppered with what is meant to be authenticating asides and terms of endearment like, “homeboy, please!” and “our man…”, but this comes off as patronizing and maybe even a little mean to Oscar. Diaz cares most about making Oscar our emotional center. All we want is for him to fall in love. He doesn’t. He has a string of platonic romances and falls in love with a prostitute named Ybon at the end of the novel. A corrupt Dominican cop is also in love with her. Big surprise. Oscar doesn’t heed the warning signs. He sees her after her cop boyfriend threatens to kill him. We know what’s coming. The title gives it away. One can’t but help feel a little bored with him – Diaz via Oscar – while his life might be brief, it is far from wondrous, unless of course Diaz uses “wondrous” with a tinge of irony. Not phenomenal, not compared to others of his generation writing in the post-colonial vein, but decent and entertaining.1 You see what I mean? Imagine reading almost a third of a novel like this, sometimes even having to turn the pages back to pick up reading where you left off after you finished reading the long-ass footnote. Granted, with the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, and others making the very form of the novel part of its artistic content. With books like “Revolutions Only,” which you had to read like different sides of a cube, Diaz’s footnotes don’t seem all that creative; a half-assed attempt at writing an “arty” novel.