Santo Domingo summers have their own particular allure. For two months, Santo Domingo slaps the diaspora engine into reverse, yanks back as many of its expelled children as it can; airports choke with the overdressed; necks and luggage carrousels groan under the accumulated weight of that year’s cadenas and paquetes; restaurants, bars, clubs, theatres, malecones, beaches, resorts, hotels, moteles, extra rooms, barrios, colonias, campos, ingenios swarm with quisqueyanos from the world over: from Washington Heights to Roma, from Perth Amboy to Tokyo, from Brijeporr to Amsterdam, from Anchorage to San Juan; it’s one big party; one big party for everybody but the poor, the dark, the jobless, the sick, the Haitian, their children, the bateyes, the kids whom certain Canadian, American, German, and Italian tourists love to rape—yes, sir, nothing like a Santo Domingo summer, and so for the first time in years Oscar said, My elder spirits have been talking to me, Ma. I think I might go. He was imagining himself in the middle of all that ass-getting, imagining himself in love with an Island girl. (A brother can’t be wrong forever, can he?)
So curious a change in policy was this that even Lola quizzed him about it. You never go to Santo Domingo.
He shrugged. I guess I want to try something new.
One of the best things about Junot Diaz’ novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is that it doesn’t read like something that took well over a decade to write. It has the same deceptively light touch and tidal surge of the stories in Drown, his debut collection from last century. When I interviewed him on the occasion of that book, Diaz (a Dominican-American who grew up in Parlin, studied at Rutgers and peppers his work with references that ring plenty of bells for anyone familiar with the Middlesex-Union-Essex corridor) said he actually hated writing short stories. Novels, he said. He preferred novels by a mile.
After reading Oscar Wao, I could see he wasn’t just spouting quotes. Here is the work of a man who benefits from having room to stretch out:
After his initial two weeks on the Island, after he’d got somewhat used to the scorching weather and the surprise of waking up in another country, after he refused to succumb to that whisper that all long-term immigrants carry inside themselves, the whisper that says You Do Not Belong, after he’d gone to about ten clubs and, because he couldn’t dance salsa or merengue or bachata, had sat and drunk his Presidentes while Lola and his cousins burned holes in the floor, after he’d explained to people a hundred times that he’d been separated from his sister at birth, after he spent a couple of quiet mornings on his own on the Malecón, after he’d given out all his taxi money to beggars and had to call his cousin to get home, after he’d watched shirtless, shoeless seven-year-olds fighting each other for the scraps he’d left on his plate at an outdoor café, after the family visited the shack in Baitoa where his moms had been born, after he had taken a dump in a latrine and wiped his ass with a corncob, after he’d got somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in the capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Pizza Huts, the tígueres selling newspapers at the intersections, the snarl of streets and shacks that were the barrios, the masses of niggers he waded through every day and who ran him over if he stood still, the mind-boggling poverty, the skinny watchmen standing in front of stores with their shotguns, the music, the raunchy jokes heard on the streets, the Friday-night strolls down the Avenida, the mind-boggling poverty—after he’d gone to Boca Chica and Villa Mella, after the relatives berated him for having stayed away so long, after he heard the stories about his father and his mother, after he stopped marvelling at the amount of political propaganda plastered up on every spare wall, after the touched-in-the-head tío who’d been tortured during Balaguer’s reign came over and cried, after he’d swum in the Caribbean, after Tío Rodolfo had got the clap from a puta (Man, his tío cracked, what a pisser! Har-har!), after he’d seen his first Haitians kicked off a guagua because niggers claimed they “smelled,” after he’d nearly gone nuts over all the bellezas he saw, after all the gifts they’d brought had been properly distributed, after he’d brought flowers to his abuela’s grave, after he had diarrhea so bad his mouth watered before each detonation, after he’d visited all the rinky-dink museums in the capital, after he stopped being dismayed that everybody called him gordo, after he’d been overcharged for almost everything he wanted to buy, after the terror and joy of his return subsided, after he settled down in his abuela’s house, the house that the diaspora had built, and resigned himself to a long, dull, quiet summer, after his fantasy of an Island girlfriend caught a quick dicko (who the fuck had he been kidding? he couldn’t dance, he didn’t have loot, he didn’t dress, he wasn’t confident, he wasn’t handsome, he wasn’t from Europe, he wasn’t fucking no Island girl), after Lola flew back to the States, Oscar fell in love with a semiretired puta.
When I first encountered Diaz through “Edison, New Jersey,” a story about an alienated young Dominican-American man split between his ethnic roots and his surrealistic day job (delivering and installing pool tables in white suburbia), I was impressed by the sheer readability of his work. That quality is all through Oscar Wao, and it deserves all the praise it’s been getting — including, how about that, a Pulitzer Prize.