Fuku versus zafa

Posted on April 18, 2008


By Jonathan Woods

Lots of bad luck and trouble out there, mostly attributable to fuku, a curse that attaches when least expected. But Junot Diaz [1] has a major counterspell or zafa thing going these days. Born in the Dominican Republic, raised in Paterson, New Jersey within a crack vial’s throw of Nueva York, Diaz has found the ultimate writer’s niche: the Dominican literary hipster experience on the hard streets of a stateside barrio. Not a lot of competition there, the last time I looked. But who’s complaining, since Diaz has talent to burn. First Drown [2], a slim volume of street-heavy stories of misspent Dominic youth published to critical acclaim in 1996; now, eleven years later, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning first novel [3], The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Oscar, an overweight comic book and video game freak, is not the kind of character you’d necessarily choose to spend a lot of time with. But Diaz saves us by installing a hipster Dominican narrator with a street-smart mouth between Oscar and the intrepid reader. At the outset Yunior doesn’t really like Oscar either, but he’s willing to tolerate him to get his hands on the kajoobies of Oscar’s older sister Lola. Slowly, ever so slowly, Yunior becomes committed not only to helping Oscar escape his nerdy-ness and get laid but also to telling the story of three generations of Oscar’s family, reaching back to their dark origins in the DR at the end of WWII.

The story of Oscar’s sad, lonely, girl-obsessed and girl-rejected existence progresses from high school in North Jersey through four years as an outsider at university to a celibate, Mr. Chips-ian teaching job, still in North Jersey. Along the way he meets and lusts after an odd assortment of wet dream chicks. There’s Ana, with “her Caribbean-girl eyes, pure anthracite,” who wears “the sexiest underwear she could afford” and has “a body that you just knew would look good in and out of clothes.” But she’s still hung up on her old boyfriend Manny, who enjoys beating the crap out of her. In university he falls for Puerto Rican goth girl Jenni Munoz, but their romance is short lived and unfulfilled. And then, long after Oscar has given up hope, lost himself in a dead end teaching job, he visits his abuela La Inca, who still lives in the DR. There he meets Ybon, a neighbor and ex-hooker, and falls madly in love one more time.

Interleaved between these episodes of Oscar’s pathetic existence, Yunior tells the scarifying, stomach-churning story of Oscar’s mother and grandparents in the DR during the blood soaked years of the Trujillo dictatorship and afterwards. Paranoia, torture, secret police, murder, fear, dungeons, blood, kidnappings, the power of life and death. These are the words that describe life in a small, tropical dictatorship run by a psychopath. Not coincidentally, they also describe the legacy of the Twentieth Century.

The stories of the horrors that befall Oscar’s grandfather, Dr. Abelard Luis Cabral, and his daughter Belicia (Beli), later Oscar’s mama, under Trujillo [4] are heart wrenching and personal, even as told in Yunior’s wise cracking, DR slang ridden patois. Yunior wonders if Oscar’s family labors under a horrendous curse, a major fuku. But after being almost beaten to death by Trujillo goons, Beli gets a second chance. She escapes to Nueva York where she starts a new life, giving birth to Lola and Oscar.

Digging back into the history of Oscar’s and Lola’s family and their lives under a deranged dictator in a country nobody cares about, Diaz presents a microcosm of all the atrocities and devilments that humans have wracked upon other humans, from the trenches of the Great War to the Nazi death camps, from the Gulag to Mao’s murderous reign, from Rwanda to Cambodia to Wounded Knee. It is these sections of Diaz’s novel that truly come alive, that kick you in the gut.

The final section of the novel returns to Oscar who at last finds happiness and… oops, can’t reveal the ending. But the question remains whether Oscar’s ultimate words are intended by Diaz as mere irony or heartfelt refutation of Joseph Conrad’s bleak assessment of the West [5] and human nature in general. Does falling in love and losing your virginity trump cannibalism in the Belgian Congo? Maybe Kurtz just wasn’t getting any. If this all sounds a bit cryptic, you’ll just have to read the book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is written in a baroque, wisecracking style rife with DR street slang. At first this extensive use of Spanish language slang is somewhat off-putting. But there are no DR slang dictionaries out there for us anal retentives. So you end up go with the flow, and surprisingly the meaning of most of the Yunior’s slang becomes intuitively apparent.

Diaz inserts footnotes from time to time in the historical sections, some quite lengthy. A post-modern affectation, they actually work okay here – though they’re still irritatingly disruptive to the flow of the story. Like having your spouse unexpectedly walk into the room where you’re boffing the au pair. But the headlong momentum of the story and the immediate and often hilarious voice of the narrator, Yunior, carry the reader through the story like a yawl running flat out in a stiff squall. Diaz’s tale is Alex Portnoy [6] meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with the Marx brothers lurking in the background.

I first read The Brief Wondrous Life while staying in a famous hotel in Bologna this past January. The hotel bed was made up with real linen sheets. The room was cozy. A bottle of Stock brandy and a clean glass sat close at hand. It was an experience almost better than an orgasm. Definitely zafa! Read this book.

Buy this book>>

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Faber & Faber
400 Pages

[1] JunotDiaz.com
[2] Drown, Junot Diaz [Faber & Faber, 2007]
[3] Pulizter Prize for Fiction [2008]
[4] Rafael Trujillo
[5] Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad [Penguin Classics 2007]
[6] Alexander Portnoy, protagonist of Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s 1969 novel [Vintage 2005]


Jonathan Woods is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. When not writing he works part time at a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.

Posted in: Reading