Trujilo meets Tolkien on Junot Diaz’s long-awaited first novel
BY CAROLINA GONZÁLEZ
Junot Díaz’s 1996 literary debut, “Drown,” turned him into the “it” writer of the New York literary scene — Latino or not.
But the short-story collection that made the name of the Dominican-American writer came out over a decade ago, an eternity in the dog years of publishing. How could he possibly follow it up?
His long-awaited debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” (Riverhead, $24.95) is an ambitious family saga paved with political violence, historic curses, comic books and unrequited love.
“I wanted to play with the conventions of the multigenerational family novel,” said Díaz. “I’m looking to entertain myself. A mí me gusta joder.”
“Oscar Wao,” released Thursday, has fans and the publishing industry salivating. The novel leads the “BEA Buzzometer” for fall releases in the industry Web site Publishers Marketplace.
Does the novel live up to the hype? Yes. Absolutely.
Anti-hero Oscar de León (no relation to the salsero of the same name) is what Díaz has dubbed a “ghetto-nerd,” a bookish, comics-loving, obese teen hopelessly in love with one alluring Latina after another. His nickname “Wao” comes from the Dominican pronunciation of “Oscar Wilde.”
His sister Lola, a rebellious punk rocker and athlete, gives him some harsh, but needed advice: “Oscar … you’re going to die a virgin unless you start changing.”
But as compelling as Oscar’s plight is, his is not the only story we follow. There is their fierce mother, Belicia de León, and their grandmother living in the Dominican Republic, known as La Inca.
“A book about love, heterosexual love, about a male tragic figure, lives or dies by its women characters,” said Díaz. “I was, as a kid, un enamorao. I’m comfortable being around women on their terms.”
The story swings back and forth between Paterson, N.J., and the Dominican Republic, the two places where Díaz grew up.
“I wanted to create a book that encompassed a particular family’s post-WWII moment in the Dominican diaspora,” he said.
The narrator of the story, Yuniol, is suspiciously similar to a character by the same name in the “Drown” stories. And in some ways, Yuniol resembles Díaz himself. But the author is quick to point out that he is not Yuniol. “Yuniol and Oscar are ‘almost-me’s,’ ” he said.
A self-described ghettonerd, Díaz said that the two characters are flip sides of the same coin. Like Yuniol, he could have gotten into trouble with his more “hoodlum” friends, or “I could have turned into Oscar in two seconds.”
The structure of the novel also strays from the typical family melodrama. Interruptions, sidebars and footnotes abound.
The Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo — who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1930 until his assassination in 1961 — is compared with science-fiction and fantasy villains such as Sauron from the “Lord of the Rings” novels. And the “fukú,” a curse supposedly brought into the New World by Columbus, hangs over all the characters, especially Oscar.
This sense of playing with convention is what Díaz finds missing from much of contemporary Latino literature. He believes many writers merely adopt literary clichés rather than challenging them.
“I never understood how you could have a multigenerational family drama and be so un-nutritious,” he said.
Even popular forms like the telenovela are more willing to mess with their formulas, he said. “Novela [soap opera] writers don’t seem to have a problem playing.”
To the inevitable question of why did it take so long for the followup, Díaz said that he has been writing at least three different projects that hit dead ends.
But he said he will take up one of those novels, a science-fiction project, during a year-long fellowship in Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which he will start after the book tour ends.
For the year, he will take a leave of absence as a writing professor at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., a job he will surely miss. When he’s not teaching, he lives in East Harlem.
“As an activist and human being I think it’s a sacred function to mentor and teach,” he said. “It’s one of the ways I give back.”