I like to pretend that I know slightly more about the Dominican Republic than the average American. I visited for a week to do mission work (painting a school!) a few years ago. We did not spend any time lying on a beach, but we did eat a lot of rice and fried plantains and drank a fair amount of Presidente. We worked in a small town outside of San Pedro de Macoris, and walked through the Haitian area, explored the sugar cane fields, and may or may not have interrupted Manny Acta‘s parents nap and seen his father’s turtles. So yeah – not your typical Dominican vacation experience, and it left me feeling like we did know more than your average turista.
So reading this book (really these books, because my audiobook included the short story collection “Drown” after “Oscar Wao” finished) was mind boggling. Obviously I didn’t know everything. When I read about other cultures and countries, it’s always a learning experience. But this felt different. Having had a slightly more authentic DR experience made the books come alive. When they talked about the residential neighborhoods of Santo Domingo, I could imagine that, along with the downtown (which I can’t imagine has changed drastically in the last 50 years because have you been? Yeah). And I know what a smaller city in the DR is like as well, so I had a good idea of what that would be like. And the small towns, and the cane fields, and the segregation and dislike for the Haitians living in the DR. So it was all good atmospheric experience to have to make this book come alive.
I’m not saying you can’t read this book without having been to a small town there. But the author – Junot Díaz – does such a spectacular job of evoking these experiences that I feel like I’m back there.
That’s to say nothing of the fascinating insight into Dominican immigrant culture in the US. Or what it’s like to be first generation and feel separated from both your cultural heritage, and unaccepted by the one you are in. Which I think is the story that Díaz was most trying to tell. The protagonist is Oscar de León who is a straight-up nerd, and we see the story of his short life being a desperation for love and physical affection. We also get background on Oscar’s sister, his mother and the grandparents back in the DR that he never new which add amazing depth to how and why Oscar is shaped into the person he is.
I have to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the last section of the book about Oscar’s life and how he meets his end. Which is not a spoiler – if you didn’t guess he was going to die young from the title…you’re not paying attention. Especially since our narrator (Yunior) tells us that it happened early in the book. It’s one of these cases where it doesn’t matter that it happened, more how we get to the point that it did. And that’s the part I’m not a fan of – that last epoch that becomes life-defining and ending, and seems like a desperate turn in the story that I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know – perhaps it makes more sense if Oscar is less sensible and more desperate than I viewed him to be. But the entire book is a fascinating look at things I could never seen on my own, and I can definitely see why it won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Drown – the short story collection the accompanied my audiobook – was a fascinating follow-up piece. I may have spent too much time trying to decide if the Yunior in the stories was the same as the Yunior from Oscar Wao. I also tried to decide if all the stories were connected – though out of order – and could not decide. It was again a fascinating look at Dominican and immigrant life that I would not otherwise be exposed to, and which was a lovely experience to read.
So – should you read these books? Heck yes. Though if there’s a chance you can visit the DR and get out into the countryside (not just the resorts) before reading, it will add a layer of depth and resonance that you would not believe possible. But even if you can’t make that flight just for a book…you’ll have an amazing experience reading these stories.