December 23, 2009


by Junot Díaz
335 pages, Riverhead Books, 2007

Review by Maria Bustillos

A weirdly beautiful, sad, funny book. I am a bit gutted to think that everyone everywhere did not grow up (a) speaking the Caribbean-inflected Spanish patois that I am fortunate in sharing with the author, Junot Díaz, because about 30% of this novel's ineffable humor springs from that very pure, very concentrated source, which Mr. Díaz manages with total facility and perfect pitch, and (b) exact same thing goes for a really absurd degree of familiarity with The Lord of the Rings, Dune and so on. The Tolkien banter here is especially rarefied. A Dominican thug, compared to the Witch-King of Angmar! That may have been my favorite bit, so recherché and yet, so apt. It takes a real Tolkien nerd to appreciate the choice of the Witch-King of Angmar in this particular instance, because he was the Lord of the Nazgûl, just like this guy was for Trujillo, so it's just perfect. Unfortunately, I can't tell you my favorite of the many Tolkien-derived jokes, because it would be a terrible spoiler. Made me bawl, though. But for reals, it would not be a bad idea to bone up on your Tolkien before tackling this wonderful novel, or at least to have it by your side as you go.

What I'm getting at here is that I am practically Oscar Wao myself. I'm Cuban, not Dominican, and I'm not hugely fat, of course, and I'm a girl. But I'm Caribbean through and through, and also a terrific nerd (or dork.) So in case you need to know just exactly what it means to be a "bailarina cubana from one of the shows" (of the 1950s, as in fact my own mother was,) the precise nuance of the exclamation, "Jodido!", or what it means to have 18 Charisma at Dungeons and Dragons, I invite you to email me for the details. Mr. Díaz has created a world of spectacular richness and texture in this book, but it’s the real world, too, so like the one I inhabit that I caught myself gasping with the delight of recognition, over and over, as I read. But please, don't call this Spanglish, as so many reviewers have done! There's no half-measures or sloppiness about this newly synthesized language, which is like a whole new wing of English; plus, it's the way we actually talk; freaky and mixed-up, but brimming with feeling and nuance, with precision. But here's the thing. This is the greatest immigrant novel I've ever read, and I could go on and on about its authority, humor, sadness and truthfulness, the loopy power of its unique voice. The brilliant meshing of his harrowing, horrible story of personal betrayal and corruption with the fate of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo; the symbolic tragedy of the whole Dominican Republic is not here confined to rape and brutality, but to forced abortion and boiling in oil. But wait! There's more ...

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is constructed with dazzling subtlety and artistry. This is a writer's book if there ever was one, and that's its main strength, its real genius. Those among us who have attempted to write novels ourselves, and are in the habit of analyzing the craft that goes into their making, will have their breath simply stolen away by this thing. The narrator is 3rd-person omniscient, but no, not really, but well, yes ... no. He breaks for a moment right out of frame, and slides imperceptibly back in again. The author and the narrator are ... well!! How did he do that? I started rereading right away, in hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the dextrous, tightrope-walker control Díaz has over this wild and crazy material. No soap, though. You can't just unlock the magic so easily ... really, you'd have about the same luck trying to figure out how a palantír works by staring into it.


  1. I read a collection of short stories called "Drown" by Junot Diaz years back... It was wonderful. Thanks for a lovely review Maria, I might have to check this one out.

  2. This was far and away the best novel I've read in 20 years. Maria, you've touched on the reason why (for me, anyway) - it is the hocus-pocus Diaz pulls with point-of-view, sometimes in mid-page. And that isn't the only "rule" he breaks, either.

    The depressing thing about this book is that Diaz won the Pulitzer for it in 2007 , and I bought it less than a year later at the bargain table of Barnes & Noble for $7.00.