The latest in a series of occasional posts on winners of or finalists for major prizes and whether they deserved their honors
Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. By Junot Díaz. Riverhead, 335 pp., $24.95.
What it is: The first novel by the author of the short story collection, Drown. The dust jacket of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao describes it as a book about “a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love.”
Winner of: The 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
How much I read: The first 60 pages and some later passages.
Why I stopped reading: A short prologue introduces fukú, a type of curse or doom, in a tone of beautifully controlled menace. The first seven pages of this novel may have been the best opening of a novel published in 2007. But the tone shifted in the first chapter and, with it, my attention. Much of the story is told by Oscar’s friend Yunior, whose narrative devolves at times into telling instead of showing. Oscar’s language is also heavily profane and vulgar, and although the profanity and vulgarity may have been necessary, they made it harder to warm up to the book. It probably didn’t help that my three years of high school Spanish didn’t prepare me to translate much of the Spanish and Spanglish in the book, so I had the sense that I was missing a lot of the subtleties.
Was this one of those prizes that make you wonder if all the judges were on Class B controlled substances? No. The 60 or so pages that I read weren’t as good as those of the best Pulitzer fiction winners I’ve read, such as The Stories of John Cheever (1979), A Summons to Memphis (1987), and The Age of Innocence (1921). But they may have been much better than some of the worst Pulitzer winners, which have long since dropped out of sight.
Best line in what I read: The first lines of the novel: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú – generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World.”
Worst line in what I read: “He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror.” That “manumission” is one of a number of examples of elevated diction that clashes with breezier tone that exists elsewhere in the book.
Published: September 2007 us.penguingroup.com
Furthermore: Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in New Jersey, and lives in New York City. He teaches writing at MIT.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.