by Junot Diaz
Olman’s awesome experience with this Pulitzer Prize winner pretty much spurred me on to read it ASAP. Although I’d heard about the book before (something about a Dominican ghetto nerd and his immigrant family with lots of pop cultural refs thrown in), never in my wildest imagining would I’ve guessed that this would speak to Olman and nerds of the world (the kind of people who would not otherwise touch postcolonial, or magic realist, literature with a 10-foot jousting lance) in such a profoundly visceral way!
After reading the first few pages, you quickly realize TBWLOW wields a powerful combo of nerdery and historical fiction that's confidently told by a colloquial voice rich in a mishmash of Spanglish & hiphop influences. Even though the style is consistently entertaining in its delivery, it does not take away from any of the personal tragedy & struggles that permeate the novel. Right off the bat, an unknown narrator introduces this as a fukú story. Fukú is a kind of superstitious curse or doom, first unleashed upon the Hispanic New World with the arrival of the Europeans. And this vague sinister force of the fukú, we learn, follows the lives of various members of the Cabral family.
I had originally thought the story would mainly focus on Oscar Cabral (Wao is more like a nickname), but it actually vacillates between him, his mother Belicia, his sister Lola and his grandfather Abelard, who are all, in various ways, misfits or outcasts in society, whether it’s in the city of Santo Domingo or the suburbs of New Jersey. Our mysterious narrator (whose identity is revealed later in the novel) first introduces Oscar as a guy who “wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber”, and who couldn’t hide his otakuness to save his life. Sadly, our anti-hero is likely the only Dominican male on planet Earth who is still a virgin due to the fact that:
Oscar’s idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!)
If you still don’t understand why Olman loves this book so much, well then, may Saruman help you (my feeble attempt at infusing this review with Tolkien plugs). Even I re-discovered my inner geek while reading this book, getting a frisson of gratifying pleasure whenever I recognized a nerdy reference (except the ones that have to do with gaming, of course), which isn’t hard since nerdery is generously scattered throughout the book. Even the female characters cannot escape the geek mythologizing, like Oscar’s rebellious sister, Lola, the only teenage punk Latina in her hood whose favorite books are about runaways, e.g. Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, My Side of the Mountain (like, hey, that was like me too!).
Most importantly and impressively is how Diaz integrates his one-of-a-kind vernacular into his historical accounts of the Dominican Republic (most of which is in the form of David Foster Wallace-inspired footnotes), particularly when it was under the Trujillo dictatorship throughout the 1930s and 1960s:
In some ways living in Santo Domingo during the Trujillato was a lot like being in that famous Twilight Zone episode that Oscar loved so much, the one where the monstrous white kid with the godlike powers rules over a town that is completely isolated from the rest of the world, a town called Peaksville… You might roll your eyes at this comparison, but friends: it would be hard to exaggerate the power Trujillo exerted over the Dominican people and the shadow of fear he cast throughout the region. Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor…
I don’t know about you, but who would’ve thought that learning about 20th century Latin American history and how it impacts an immigrant family can be so freakin’ fun? Not to mention the fact that history can sometimes be truly stranger than any sci-fi or fantasy and more horrific than any Stephen King concoction. What’s also notable in Diaz’s writing style is the seamless lack of quotations in regards to all the dialogue. I remember Olman had a big problem with this very same stylistic device in No Country For Old Men, so I asked him: so you didn’t have a problem with it here? The funny thing was, Olman didn’t even notice the lack of dialogue quotations, he was so into the story! Even if you don’t know any Spanish, or anything about Latin history, Tolkien, Star Trek, comic books and/or Akira, believe it or not, this is still a remarkable and unique novel. A highly recommended reading experience!