I missed the mandatory two seconds of Dominican history, so before reading this novel I was ignorant of Trujillo, the infamous dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. He was Mobuto before Mobuto and his dark brutal shadow looms over the lives of Oscar’s family, the de Leons, the book describes it as a fuku, a curse.
Oscar Wao is a nerd. But not your regular British or American nerd, he is a Dominican nerd. A grossly overweight Dominican nerd. “You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” He has a deep understanding and a comprehensive grasp of essential nerd attributes: comic-steeped themes, late-stage virginity, RPGs, anime, Asperger’s-like social awkwardness, cult classic movies, athletically-challenged, a wish list of superpowers, girl-repellent, tech-y nicknames, imaginative overdrive, questionable hygiene, odd jargon… Oscar spends most of his young life falling deeply in love with girl after girl and in every instance but not even getting his first kiss until well after he’s graduated from college (very un-Dominican). His few friends are embarrassed by him, girls want nothing to do with him, and everywhere he goes Oscar finds nothing but derision and hostility.
The action flits from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. After the first part, we leave Oscar and see how the curse (Dominicans are very superstitious) affected Oscar’s sister, mother, aunts and grandparents.
Mixed up in all this mess is Yunior, a weight lifter and writer, our primary narrator and Oscar’s former college roommate (not to mention the cheating ex-boyfriend of Lola, Oscar’s sister).
The narrative is ultra hip, chatty, sometimes humorous, sometimes brutal, bi-lingual, capturing a certain zeitgeist, and is overly familiar with the N-word (perhaps not as bad coming from a Dominican as from a white southern writer like Faulkner). Sometimes I’m lost by some of the Spanish terms.
In the background of each Dominican story the shadow of Trujillo, the former dictator of the Dominican Republic renowned for his brutality, whose enemies met with disastrous ends one way or another (historical details about Trujillo and the history of his reign of terror are scattered in footnotes throughout the novel, adding some historical background). It doesn’t take much to fall foul of Trujillo (“The Failed Cattle Thief”) even if you merely pronounced his name wrong your relatives might find your body beaten to a pulp in one of canefields covering the island. If you were to ask me two weeks ago what I knew about the DR and its people it would have been nada. Can’t say that now.
The de Leóns are on a collision course with disaster, predestined by the fuku but can they break the curse before it’s too late? And more importantly for Oscar will he get laid before he dies?
Seems I’m not the only one to have loved this book it is number one on BBC Culture’s “Novels of the Century”: 21 st Century’s Twelve best novels
My rating 5 out of 5 ( I loved this book)