four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
By: 
Junot Diaz
user_rating: 
0

A-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoOscar Wao—a nerdy and overweight Dominican American living in New Jersey—fantasizes about finding love and becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien. His sister, Lola, a punk chick, urges him to lose weight and venture out more. Their tough (and sometimes abusive) mother, Beli, grew up suffering the violent regime of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who held power between 1930 and 1961. The novel weaves Beli’s story with Oscar’s, moving seamlessly between the two time frames and locations and between Lola’s voice and that of another narrator whose identity is not immediately revealed. The characters’ efforts to recover from trauma are impeded by the fukú, an enduring curse that may explain the family’s unhappy destiny.
Riverhead. 340 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1594489580

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] book whose imaginative energy, linguistic volatility, historical passion and all-around love of life (and its characters) make it one of the best first novels of the past few decades. … A profane and sacred, playful and serious, light and dark, filthy-throated and bittersweet treatise on life as we need to know it." Alan Cheuse

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is panoramic and yet achingly personal. … It’s Dominican and American, not about immigration but diaspora, in which one family’s dramas are entwined with a nation’s, not about history as information but as dark-force destroyer." Susan Straight

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. [W]ondrous [and] original. … [This work] decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices." Michiko Kakutani

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Junot Díaz’s long-awaited first novel, will burn its way into your heart and sizzle your senses. And beware of scorch marks on your retinas while reading some very hot sex scenes. … Díaz’s novel is drenched in the heated rhythms of the real world as much as it is laced with magical realism and classic fantasy stories." Carol Memmott

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The great achievement … is Díaz’s ability to balance an intimate, multigenerational story of familial tragedy with a meditation on the larger horrors that have gripped their homeland. The past and the present remain equally in focus, equally immediate, and Díaz’s acrobatic prose toggles artfully between realities, keeping us enthralled with all." Adam Mansbach

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Diaz has risked running a three-legged race … by tying together what could have been either an extremely potent political novel or an extraordinarily moving family drama. One is left feeling that each potential impeded the other, competing for the author’s attention." Art Winslow

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] messy, smart and moving successor to Drown. … Díaz writes invigorating and evocative prose, and his sentences sizzle even as he mixes phrases of Spanish, New Jersey slang and references to Oscar’s beloved science fiction." Daniel A. Hoyt

Critical Summary

Reviewers agree that Junot Díaz’s first novel was well worth the 11-year wait. Díaz established his reputation with Drown (1996), a collection of short stories that drew widespread praise. With The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz has cemented his place in the literary stratosphere. He garners admiration for the "slangy and kinetic energy of his prose" (New York Times), as well as for the way he hop scotches between high- and lowbrow culture and ties together Dominican and American history (and the problems therein). Some critics cite a distracting (mysterious) narrator, too many digressions, and a difficult narrative structure. Despite these minor flaws, fans of literary fiction should dive right in.

Also by the Author

Drown (1996): In these ten stories set in Dominican Republic barrios and New York and New Jersey ghettos, the impoverished characters try to redefine their identities amid sexual, familial, social, and economic change and uncertainty.