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Junot Díaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Riverhead Books/ Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-594-48958-7
Publication Date: 09-06-2007
340 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 09-13-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy  Science Fiction  Horror

He who tells the tale may not at first wish us, his readers, to believe that he is in fact the subject of the story. It may not be true. But from the first sentence of Junot Díaz's superb 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,' it is clear that we're privy to a voice that is itself story. Yunior, who first popped up in 'Drown.' here establishes himself as a voice so compelling, one is tempted to compare him to singers — Aretha Franklin or Luciano Pavarotti — more than a prose voice. The raw power that Díaz summons with such ease connects with readers at the same powerful emotional level. It is literately irresistible.

At its core, 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' indeed lives up to its title and gives us just that — the story of the man who comes to be called Oscar Wao, an overweight, withdrawn Dominican ghetto boy who immerses himself in what is now called "geek culture" — that is, "sci-fi," comics, and fantasy fiction, all the escapist wonders that swarm our senses with tantalizing glimpses of worlds that are not, and will never be ours. But as Yunior tells the story of Oscar, he zips back and forth in time in our world, telling the story of Oscar's mother, his grandfather and the Dominican Republic. Yunior, a much harder case than Oscar, is not immune to Oscar's charms, nor to those of geek culture. He tells us Oscar's story, all of these stories, with hints of the voice of a fan. He uses the language of fans of world-building fiction to build a world that is part of our world from the perspective of a fan. It's a remarkable feat and so insanely, lovingly, achingly enjoyable on every level that it is hard to stop reading.

Díaz creates a galley of histories and history, or characters who pop to life for Yunior and the reader in prose so compelling that it never matters who we are with, where we are or when we are. He's frequently hilarious, touching, scary and cruel, but we don't feel the difference so much as the continuity, the thread of vibrant life from one scene to the next. Yunior gives us lots of historical footnotes — yes, literally written as footnotes — that are every bit as compelling as the increasingly tense story of Oscar and his doomed family. While he eschews any specific sense of the fantastic, he manages in the same words to embed a feel of just how fantastic and unexpected life can be. Expect to find lots of references to The Lord of the Rings (Oscar wants to be the Dominican Tolkien), comics and science fiction literature here, but served up with the raw power of the rough-and-ready streets.

Díaz keeps the plot pretty simple in some regards; this is the story of a family that originates in the Dominican Republic but bounces back and forth to the States. But Yunior tells this simple story in his own way, and that keeps the reader guessing and excited as we go back to meet mothers and fathers (if the latter is not absent) and then forward into our brave and present future. Díaz maintains a giddy level of excitement as the layers are peeled away and added back, as Oscar lumbers towards his fate.

'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' is a perfect example of an un-self-conscious paean to the act of reading; it is a book written for those who find joy in the written word. Díaz fills every sentence, every aside with the exact adolescent enthusiasm that makes young men collect comics, hoard copies of The Lord of the Rings and read them over and over. He employs their language and their perspective (which will certainly bring joy to that audience), but he does so in a manner that lets everyone in on the fun. Now, life is not by any means perfect. Heroes die. The War of the Rings exacts a price. But approach life like a kid entranced by the powers of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, look at your lost love through the lens of The Lord of the Rings, and for a moment, the sadness and the terror will be swept up with — and indistinguishable from — the joy of those who read and love those books, or any books.

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