The Ghetto Nerd


Ten years ago, Junot Díaz dropped Drown-—a short story collection, remember, those things that don’t sell?—and he’s still famous. Son- ofabitch is like Sade or something, can go missing for half his career and then show up again with a hit. What was so remarkable about this guy that he could keep the literary world on tenterhooks for that long? Well, in addition to the ridiculous accolades Drown received, Díaz exploded out of the Dominican Republic, which is not known for its literary prowess—not the way Trinidad served up Derek Walcott and a bevy of Naipauls, nor even the way Martinique busted out with Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. Sorry to all you devotees of Salomé Ureña, but it’s Díaz in the lead, with Julia Alvarez running a distant second. The DR has baseball by the cojones, but literature? No way, José Reyes.

Well, actually, Díaz exploded out of Old Bridge, New Jersey, but whatever. He was born in the DR, and probably goes back there a lot. Must be weird jetting between MIT, where he teaches, and Santo Domingo. My point is that his voice is vital, the lit-world equivalent of Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Albert Pujols—I could go on—put together. Baseball, of course, is less dependent on facility with language than on hand signals, so the barriers against success in Anglophone culture are obviously higher. I mean, expanding the search for crossover writers to the whole of Hispaniola adds only one, Edwidge Danticat.

Díaz has—or could have, if he wanted it—the status of a folk hero, with cred coming at him from readers of all stripes: still getting love from his geeky homeboys and the Gringo Yorker to boot. So as Díaz remained blocked for at least half a decade, the thought that his muse might have shriveled up from all the positive attention was a bit horrifying to the multitudes who saw Drown‘s gritty, cinematic take on the immigrant story as a watershed. It felt like several of your favorite players were in a bad slump. Worse, it was your fault. Was Díaz gonna pull some Ralph Ellison only-one-book-ever shit on us?

The wait has made it easy to greet the arrival of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz’s first novel—a debut novel from a motherfucking associate professor, gotta love it—with a sigh of relief and a heap of generosity. The new book doesn’t have the vicious, grotesque soul of Drown. In fact, as Zadie Smith called her White Teeth, Oscar Wao is a bit of a “hyperactive ginger-haired 10-year-old”—though Díaz’s book is definitely a moreno. Its rapid-fire, profane, and hilarious voice recalls one of John Leguizamo’s monologues, Mambo Mouth or Spic-O-Rama, underscored with footnotes lampooning the political and social history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, the DR’s Latin-style Kim Jong Il.

If Díaz’s madcap family saga uses Trujillo to represent the most exaggerated, stereotypical qualities of Dominican macho—womanizing, violence, irritability, arrogance, etc.—Oscar and the three generations of his family who populate the book nullify those preconceived notions, as the author zigzags among their perspectives. Oscar is a “ghetto nerd,” a 245-pound comic-book savant, misfit, and frustrated Casanova. Actually, the entire family has a penchant for falling in love with the wrong people. His sister Lola, a “punk chick,” runs away with a guy and then is packed off to the DR by her mother, named Hypatía (apparently after the ur female nerd). Hypatía has her own untold tale of mad love, with a Dominican gangster close to El Jefe himself, which culminates in the dictator’s demise (sort of). Oscar, too, winds up back in the DR and meets his end—I’m not giving anything away, look at the title—because his affair with a prostitute who has a boyfriend in law enforcement doesn’t go so well, to say the least.

Where Drown seemed as if Díaz had meticulously labored over every punctuation mark, Oscar Wao moves along breathlessly, chattily, as if written in one sitting. (That’s a compliment, because it definitely wasn’t, unless 10 years is a sitting.) While the rambunctious humor and focus on love trouble undercuts the brutality at the heart of the story (and the regime) somewhat, Oscar Wao is certainly more fun than Danticat’s Trujillo book, The Farming of Bones, as Díaz’s commentary on Oscar’s ill-fated romance proves:

“A jealous Third World cop boy-friend? Maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time together? Any other nigger would have pulled a Scooby-Doo double take—Eeuoooorr?—would have thought twice about staying in Santo Domingo another day.”

Riddled with references to pop culture (mostly sci-fi) and haute literature, the novel privileges neither. The “Wao” of the title, for one, is a mispronunciation of Wilde. And like Wilde, Díaz has relieved himself of the burden of changing the world, settling instead on entertaining in a brainy, refreshing, and sly way. Not a home run, baseball fans, but he has stolen second base.