It's been 11 years since the Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz published his first book, the justly celebrated story collection "Drown." Back then, the novelist Francisco Goldman predicted that Díaz would become "a giant of American prose." Good call. Now that Díaz's second book, a novel called "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," has finally arrived, younger writers will find that the bar just got set higher. And some older writers—we know who we are—might want to think about stepping up their game.
"Oscar Wao" shows a novelist engaged with the culture, high and low, and its polyglot language. If Donald Barthelme had lived to read Díaz, he surely would have been delighted to discover an intellectual and linguistic omnivore who could have taught even him a move or two. To get the most out of "Oscar Wao," you'd want to know about video- and role-playing games and old TV shows, about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft and that Anglo-Irish writer whose last name, misheard, gave our Dominican hero his Asian-sounding nickname. You should recognize both "Crouch" and "Gobineau" without first names, and get why a woman with an "ill donkey" should bring it to a dance club, not a vet. It would help to have some Spanish: even in New Jersey, his characters speak in a fluid bilingual dialect. Knowledge of the Rafael Trujillo regime is optional: Díaz provides many footnotes "for those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history." And you should be able to give a sage nod when the narrator says, "You ever seen that Sargent portrait, Madame X? Of course you have."
The many admirers of "Drown" will be glad to find that the narrator is, again, Yunior, Díaz's fictional alter ego—though it seems to be Díaz himself who writes the footnotes, and adds such metafictional touches as the "Note from Your Author." ("I know what Negroes are going to say. Look, he's writing Suburban Tropical now … ") Yunior, after all, teaches at a community college in Jersey while Díaz teaches at MIT. But the hero of the novel—not merely the protagonist—is Oscar, the hopelessly fat, hopelessly nerdy, hopelessly virginal and perpetually lovesick scion of the Cabrals, a once prominent Dominican family now brought low and living in New Jersey. The bench-pressing, womanizing, self-doubting Yunior—far less saintly and intelligent than Oscar, and far more like ourselves—alternates between trying to help him and trying to avoid him, while Oscar just keeps writing his unpublished science-fiction novels, and failing to get to the batter's box, let alone first base. It wouldn't be fair to give away what's ultimately wondrous about Oscar's life of shame, frustration and eventually great physical pain, or why you might get weepy when the ending hits a resonant note of simultaneous joy and sadness. You'll have to read Yunior's account of his sort-of friend's last letter.
Much of the book deals with Oscar's family history, beginning with his grandfather, a distinguished and hypercivilized doctor who tries to follow "the Tao of Dictator Avoidance"—"no one could suppress a guffaw better than Abelard when El Jefe won an election by 103 percent"—but finally gets on the bad side of Trujillo, the "Dark Lord" of his "Caribbean Mordor." (As if there were a good side: even Sauron didn't have shark tanks.) It moves along to Oscar's incomparably sexy and hideously wounded mother, and to his older sister, the star athlete and student with whom Yunior falls in love. The book opens out into history and myth: the demented brutality of the Trujillato, and a curse called the fukú. "They say it came first from Africa," the novel begins, "carried in the screams of the enslaved … that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles." The fukú's harbinger is a visionary man with no face—it may remind readers of Díaz's story "No Face," about a boy disfigured by a wild pig. It can be undone by a protective totem animal, a visionary being, part mongoose and part Aslan, Lewis's Christlike lion. Oscar's beautiful sister, Lola, gets the last word: "If you ask me, I don't think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That's enough." But it's only her last word: Oscar isn't so sure, and he's smarter than Lola.
This is a novel capacious enough to hold such primordial wonders in balance with dorm life at Rutgers and street culture from Santo Domingo to Paterson, N.J. (If you reflexively associate "P-town" with the end of Cape Cod, welcome to the Dominican diaspora.) True, once in a while, Díaz lets you down. His characters sometimes "snap" or say things "curtly," and he occasionally explains what's already obvious: "She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her." But who else would have the deft irreverence to compare a near-death beating in a cane field to "one of those nightmare eight-a.m. MLA panels"? And the sci-fi vision to compare his hero's exclusion from normal adolescence to "getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years"? And the old-school lyricism with which he describes Oscar's mother in her youth? "She is sixteen and her skin is the darkness before the black, the plum of the day's last light, her breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin." This is the sound of one torch passing.