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A Pulitzer Prize winner, a “New York Times” bestseller, a “Time Magazine” #1 Fiction Book of 2007, a counterculture favorite, an overnight cult classic.
It’s a tour de force and a joy to read!
Who Should Read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”? And Why?
In a 2012 Q&A with “The Daily Pennsylvanian,” Junot Díaz described his style as “a disobedient child of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic if that can be possibly imagined with way too much education.”
And then he added: “You can never do it justice. It’s sort of like describing a kiss versus having a kiss. To read the book is to have it.”
We think so too.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is more than just a touching story, more than a thought-provoking history lesson.
It’s also style, a very unique, original style.
And we can’t tell you much more about it.
You can only experience it.
Trust us: it’ll hit you in the face right from the first page.
By the second – you’ll be hooked and wanting for more.
Junot Díaz Biography
Junot Díaz is a Dominican American writer, whose work focuses mainly on the Latino immigrant experience in the United States.
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, at the age of six, Díaz immigrated with his family to New Jersey. He earned a BA from Rutgers University and an MFA from Cornell. Soon after, he published his first book, a collection of short stories titled “Drown.”
A decade later, he published his second book and first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a book which brought him both wide acclaim and dedicated audience.
His third – and, so far, last – book was another short story collection, published in 2012, “This Is How You Lose Her.”
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is an interestingly structured book. It’s divided into three parts, each few chapters long, and it contains 33 footnotes by the author himself.
So, here’s your chance to finally read one.
And it’s mostly about a person who never appears as a character in the story but, nevertheless, shrouds the experiences of all the book’s characters; a man who permeates through each and every aspect of what it means to be a Dominican – even today, half a century after his death.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.
A politician, a dictator, a sadist, and an all-around madman.
Also – the hypeman, the high priest of something called fukú americanus, fukú for short, “a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World”:
No one knows whether Trujillo was the Curse’s servant or its master, its agent or its principal, but it was clear he and it had an understanding, that them two was tight. It was believed, even in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful, down to the seventh generation and beyond
So, basically, Trujillo is not a mere human being (and that’s basically a quote from a newspaper celebrating his 25 years in power).
He’s a sort of a Sauron.
And we’re not going overboard here!
That’s how Díaz describes him.
The book is filled with references of this type!
One: Ghetto Nerd at the End of the World (1974 – 1987)
Now, fukú plagues everyone under Trujillo’s rule, notwithstanding Oscar’s family – and Oscar himself.
But, we’ll get to that later.
For now, let’s see: who’s Oscar?
Or, in other words, a Latino who doesn’t have much luck with the ladies. (“How very un-Dominican of him,” notes our narrator.)
It wasn’t always like that, though.
When he was very young, he had been “something of a Casanova,” one time even dating two girls at once.
But during the course of most of this book – he isn’t capable of getting the attention of not one.
And that’s because –
Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.
Unsurprisingly, what Oscar dreams most about is, well, what he can’t have: a girl.
Which to him is more SF than any SF in the world – since he’s read basically everything SF ever written!
His search for those two things – a girl and sex, not SF – is basically what the whole book is about.
It could have been a much shorter book if his first girlfriend (not counting the two he had for a brief period of time when he was seven years old), Ana Obregón, cared some more about him.
Unfortunately, she abandons Oscar once her boyfriend Manny comes back from the army. It doesn’t matter that he’s a drug addict who beats her.
Oscar, somehow, is worse.
And that’s the story of Oscar’s life right until college.
Two: Wildwood (1982 – 1985)
You see, Oscar has a restless sister called Lola and a tough mother with breast cancer called Beli. Their relationship is what the second chapter of the first part is about.
It is exactly what you’d expect from a relationship between a mother and a rebellious teenage daughter.
Needless to add, at one point, Lola runs away, but, with the help of Oscar, Beli finds Lola and sends her to live with her grandmother, La Inca, back in the Dominican Republic.
Three: The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral (1955 – 1962)
Just look at the years in the titles – Díaz is moving us back and forth in time as if a Doctor Who on drugs!
Anyway, now that we’ve experienced adolescence through Oscar and Lola, we spend some time doing the same through the eyes of Beli.
In her case, we are back in the Dominican Republic, and the aforementioned Trujillo is in power.
And you know what they say – an apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree: Beli in the 1950s is not much different from Lola in the 1980s.
She lives with her adopted mother – so, La Inca – and she’s a catch, to say the least.
Such a catch, in fact, that (after a few stints with the handsomest studs around) she catches the eye of a powerful and wealthy guy nicknamed the Gangster. Little does she know that the Gangster is influential because he’s married to Trujillo’s sister.
Or, in an entirely expected turn of events: the beating up of a lifetime.
The same night, fortunately (we never said we’d say that for a man, but…), Trujillo is assassinated.
Unfortunately, the Trujillo-governed fukú travels across deaths and time and space.
So, Beli’s life goes from bad to worse.
And La Inca sends her on a plane to New York.
Four: Sentimental Education (1988-1992)
Once again with Oscar, back where we left him in 1: in college.
Here he befriends (as we’ll find out only later) the narrator of the novel, Yunior.
And falls in love with another girl, Jenni Muñoz, a black-eyed goth and your regular Halloween dominatrix.
Their strangeness connects them.
Not enough, it seems, and Oscar has his heart broken again.
This time, however, it’s serious: he tries to commit suicide, by jumping off a train bridge.
Fortunately, he doesn’t die.
And it’s all because of a mongoose – although, don’t ask us what the mongoose is and what it does.
Some kind of a guardian angel, it seems.
Not all-powerful, though, so we leave here Oscar in the hospital, with both of his legs broken.
We also leave Yunior a bit smitten.
With none other but Oscar’s sister, Lola.
Five: Poor Abelard (1944 – 1946)
Oh, come on, Junot!
We wanted to move forward in time, not as back as we’ve never gone before!
And who is this guy Abelard?
And what does he have to do with anything?
Remember when we said earlier that seven generations might be afflicted by the fukú if someone tries doing something bad to Trujillo?
Well, this is where it all started.
Abelard Luis Cabral, a doctor, is Belicia’s father (i.e., Oscar’s grandfather), the husband of Socorro Cabral, a nurse, Oscar’s grandmother.
Well-educated and successful, they had a nice time living in Santo Domingo.
They also had two more daughters besides Belicia, one of which is named Jacquelyn.
Beauty seems to run affluent in this family: Jacquelyn, it seems, is even more beautiful than Belicia, making her the catch of catches.
And nobody can have those in the Dominican Republic unless Trujillo has them first.
Abelard tries to protect his daughter. Or, maybe makes a joke about El Jefe. Or, maybe – just maybe – he looks Trujillo the wrong way.
It doesn’t matter: it’s prison sentence or death for all of them.
Abelard gets both: 14 years into his 18-year prison sentence, he dies, a shell out of his former self.
His wife Socorro dies as well in mysterious circumstances, shortly after Belicia is born.
Mysterious is the death of Jacquelyn Cabral as well, few days after she is accepted to a medical school in France.
Three years after Jacquelyn’s death, Astrid, the third of the Cabral sisters, is killed by a strayed bullet in a church.
Beli is the only one left.
It makes a lot more sense now her behavior with Lola, doesn’t it?
Six: Land of the Lost (1992 – 1995)
You look at those years, and you know that we’re once again back with Oscar.
We learn that he has graduated from college and that he has become a substitute teacher (later teacher) at Don Bosco, his old high school.
We also learn that he doesn’t want to do that – or anything else, for that matter. He’s still the sad, miserable, deeply depressed nerd without a girlfriend.
The only difference is that now he teaches few classes no one attends.
So, not that much of an improvement.
Anyway, Oscar decides to join Belicia and Lola for a summer trip to the Dominican Republic.
And then and there, Oscar’s final love happens.
Oh, come on – it’s not a spoiler! The title, after all, is “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” – so, please don’t tell us that you didn’t know that he was going to die.
But, hey – we said “wondrous”!
There was nothing wondrous about it till now, you say, so there better be if you’re going to kill him in the end!
Well, here’s a good start:
In DR (that’s short for the Dominican Republic), Oscar falls in love with a semiretired prostitute, Ybón Pimentel, La Inca’s next-door 36-year-old neighbor.
The only problem with this: one of Ybón’s many boyfriends is/was/has been the ultra-possessive captain of the National Police force.
It’s not like it’s not obvious what may happen to Oscar if he spends any more time with Ybón.
Also, it’s not like he isn’t warned about this – by literally everyone.
But Oscar would have none of it.
So, Beli sends him back to Paterson.
(She’s known to send people away, that Beli, she is…)
Seven: The Final Voyage
Back in Paterson, Oscar thinks about Ybón and only about her.
So, he asks Yunior for some money and goes back to the Dominican Republic. Here he spends his time either writing or chasing after Ybón.
The former’s great – he dreamt about being the new Tolkien ever since childhood – but the latter one – not so much.
Because it leads to the only place where it could: the police’s capitán catches Oscar and has him lined up before a firing squad. It’s not that the police officers – or whatever they are – want to listen, but Oscar nevertheless speaks:
The words coming out like they belonged to someone else, his Spanish good for once. He told them that what they were doing was wrong, that they were going to take a great love out of the world. Love was a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things, and if anybody knew this to be true it was him.
He told them about Ybón and the way he loved her and how much they had risked and that they’d started to dream the same dreams and say the same words. He told them that it was only because of her love that he’d been able to do the thing that he had done, the thing they could no longer stop, told them if they killed him they would probably feel nothing and their children would probably feel nothing either, not until they were old and weak or about to be struck by a car and then they would sense him waiting for them on the other side and over there he wouldn’t be no fatboy or dork or kid no girl had ever loved; over there he’d be a hero, an avenger.
Because anything you can dream (he put his hand up) you can be.
The firing squad isn’t that fascinated or touched.
So, they shoot him.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Epilogue
Eight: The Last Days of Oscar Wao
“That’s pretty much it” – that’s how Díaz starts this last chapter of his book.
Only – it isn’t.
First of all, you didn’t learn the whole story of our narrator, Yunior, and Lola.
If you remember, back in the fourth chapter, we informed you that Yunior fell for Lola. Well, after a while, Lola fell for him too.
She asked him to never lie to her. He, the playboy that he is, does.
She leaves him.
One day, ten years later, he wakes up next to someone he doesn’t care a bit about, his upper lip covered in coke and blood and says: “OK, Wao, OK. You win.”
Fast forward to today, he is the changed man writing this book.
There’s a zafa to every fukú, we learn.
Apparently, Yunior is also still in love with Lola.
Only Lola is already married to someone else and even has a daughter with him going by the name of Isis.
So, it’s too late:
Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that shit could be saved, that we would be in bed together like the old times, with the fan on, the smoke from our weed drifting above us, and I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us.
__________ ___________ ____________
But before I can shape the vowels I wake up. My face is wet, and that’s how you know it’s never going to come true.
It ain’t too bad, though. During our run-ins we smile, we laugh, we take turns saying her daughter’s name. I never ask if her daughter has started to dream. I never mention our past. All we ever talk about is Oscar.
Those three lines above – not a mistake.
Just a symbol that, once you do enough bad things, there are no such words.
Epilogue: The Final Letter
Believe it or not, there’s still some left.
Because the second thing you’ve found nothing about is what was happening to Oscar during the last few days of his life.
Fortunately, eight months after Oscar is shot, a letter reaches Lola’s mailbox. It’s from Oscar – sent just before he was killed.
(Man, the efficiency of that postal service… Makes you think of Seinfeld’s postal Newman!)
And the letter recounts his last days, all spent with Ybón.
Yes – before you ask us – they did have sex.
And, unsurprisingly, it was fun.
You know what, we’ll just quote this last paragraph.
It always gets us.
So, for Oscar, sex was great, but
what really got him was not the bam-bam-bam of sex—it was the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off a line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck.
The intimacies like listening to her tell him about being a little girl and him telling her that he’d been a virgin all his life.
He wrote that he couldn’t believe he’d had to wait for this so goddamn long. (Ybón was the one who suggested calling the wait something else. Yeah, like what? Maybe, she said, you could call it life.)
He wrote: So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!
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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao PDF QuotesBut if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in. Click To Tweet If you didn't grow up like I did then you don't know, and if you don't know it's probably better you don't judge. Click To Tweet That’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough. Click To Tweet Love was a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things, and if anybody knew this to be true it was him. Click To Tweet It's exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, that prayer has dominion. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
If there’s one 21st century book you should bother reading, it’s this one.
And that’s not just our opinion.
In 2009, it was chosen by readers of “The Millions” as the best novel written since the beginning of the third millennium. And in 2015, in a poll of American critics organized by BBC, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” was voted the best novel of the 21st century.
So, there you have it.
Everybody – whether an avid reader or an erudite critic – thinks that you must read it.