Saturday, October 06, 2007

Wao! Wao! Oscar Wao!

I don’t know about you, but as a reader, I have very high expectations. I expect that a novel have characters that are real, complex, tangible, that they are just one step away from being my own friends. I mean, if I wanted just any friend, I’d go hang out at a gay bar and buy drinks. I’ve never had as many friends as when I’m at a gay bar with an open tab.

If you’re author Junot Díaz, you’ve already gotten this down pat. Your skill as a writer is evidenced by the fact that your characters are not people I would normally associate with, whom I would totally shun, but am somehow drawn to and maybe even hang out with, if they bought me drinks.

Especially if your character is the titular Oscar, an overweight Dominican nerdboy with bad skin, bad hair whose glory days have passed him by at the age of seven, when he had yet to become a torpid teen, when youth was his ally and he had been the smoothest cat on his block. The apex of this period occurred when he had a three-way kiss with two girls at the bus stop, pre-dating The Real World hot tubs. Then it was downhill all the way. There are rumors of a weird curse--a fukú--on him, his family, possibly dating back to his ancient ancestry.

The story is narrated by Yunior--Oscar's sister's ex-boyfriend (wha...?), who tells the story in an epic mash-up gangsta cholo slash Lord of The Rings style, in an effort to divine the source of the curse or ward it off, I'm not sure. Then Oscar's troubled sister Lola jumps in and puts in her two cents into the boiling cauldron. Just when you're ready to write off some evil character, some truth is revealed and you go on hating the character but not without heartache.

Junot Díaz keeps all your senses occupied with his strange patois: a mixture of English, Spanish, Klingon, moving the story forward with an urgency and casualness which would’ve been at odds itself, if it had been written with less skill, throwing in pop culture references at you, like Donkey Kong throwing barrels at a befuddled Mario. At the same time, he peppers the story with footnotes explaining obscure customs or personal histories--short stories really--in three, five or ten sentences.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Díaz’ first novel, although I had been first introduced to his work by way of Drown, his debut book of short stories in 1997. I normally don’t read short story anthologies because it’s usually one or two great stories, two more middling ones and then filler.* But I bought Drown because as I read the first paragraph at the bookstore, Díaz’ voice grabbed me with both hands and almost like he yelled, "It’s clobberin' time," I was drawn into the melee. Just like that. Check out his books.



Read this: "Homecoming, with Turtle" by Junot Díaz

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*There is only one exception to this rule and that’s Stephen King’s book of novellas Different Seasons, which spawned not one, but three feature films including Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and Stand By Me.To this day, this book rules this category for me.

Other great writers I recommend:

Pulp Fiction - David Schickler is no namby-pamby, sensitive, wryly comic author. I predict he's your new fave author.

Interview with John McNally - If you like 'em rough, troublemakers are his specialty. Check out The Book of Ralph.


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