This is an interesting book about a cultural, social and historical background I am not really familiar with.
Before meeting up with Oscar "Wao" (it stands for Wilde, mind you!), the only things I knew about Dominican Republic is that it's a little country in the Caribbeans sharing the same island with the unfortunate Haiti and where baseball is the national sport.
Well, there is not a single crack of the bat in this novel. Which is not necessarily a fault, I think.
I assumed there might have been a huge Dominican community abroad but to this day I would frankly be unable to distinguish a Dominican from a Puertorican or an Haitian if I could meet a Latino looking person in the streets of the UK. Don't take me wrong: it's just that I'm not familiar with the topic.
So far the only book I had read regarding the life of Latino immigrant families in the US dates back to several years ago and is named "An Island Like You" by Judith Ortiz Cofer a novel talking about Puertoricans in New Jersey which the most interesting feature is probably starring a character named Jennifer Lopez and being the hideous and ambitious beauty of the neighborhood. Well, as the book was written in 1995 when the famous J.Lo was still a nobody, that's what I call a coincidence!
Anyways, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is a different sort of paper beast dealing with Dominicans in New Jersey. But not a paper tiger at all.
Junot Diaz likes to show us how talented he is and how much he likes to flick among literary genres with a narration moving from third to first person, dealing with three generations of the same Dominican family and with a mind-blowing use and abuse of footnotes, quotations and pop culture references. And indeed, Mr Diaz is a talented author who seems to write with an extreme confidence and easiness, playing with his readers and tickling their sentimental as much as their morbid instincts.
I read reviews comparing Junot Diaz with Nabokov but I honestly cannot see how. Where Nabokov was cold and rational in impersonating and justifying either Humbert Humbert excesses or his own idiosyncrasies, the characters of this book are very much alive and kicking and falling apart.
Sure, Junot Diaz is indebted with other writers and he himself is well aware of it.
The way Oscar Wao builds up his sentences, for example, is hilarious because he borrows from JRR Tolkien (a recurring name here) every sort of old fashioned term and one cannot deny the huge influence of John Kennedy Toole in portraying the way the fatness of Oscar is perceived (the fact he ends up teaching English in a school just like Toole himself did is a clear homage to the father of Ignatius O.Reilly).
The greatest strength of this book is in the way Diaz gives a strong personality and a very precise identity to his characters, while its weakest point is probably the discontinuity of the narration, with key moments which seem to be forgotten with a main Latino narrator appearing out of the blue and Oscar Wao driving a car on his own all in a sudden.
I did prefer the Dominican Republic chapters to the one about life in New Jersey although the references to the dictatorship of the Trujillo family are a bit obscure every now and then.
One may wonder on how much of Mr Junot Diaz himself is into Oscar Wao's pop geekness and it's not a coincidence that I thought several times to a book like "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline while going ahead with the (not that) brief but surely wondrous life of Oscar Wao. In fact, I do think that Cline and Diaz could be excellent pals and would have a lot to talk about while playing arcade videogames and listening to The Smiths on tape cassettes.
All in all, this is a funny and touching book to read but before starting with it make sure that you have some basics of Spanish and Spanglish as Junot Diaz won't help you with any marginal notes on translation (despite delivering many others here).
Ah, and don't get too much impressed by the way Diaz seems to enjoy descriptions of sex from an often violent and mechanical male perspective: after all - as he points out here - no Dominican man has ever died a virgin!