I loved Diaz's short story collection Drown, and like almost everyone else who read it, have been eagerly waiting years for his next book. Now, something like a decade later, Diaz brings a character from that collection (Yunior) back to narrate the family history of his Rutgers roommate Oscar (who is also the brother of Yunior's sometime girlfriend). This tale begins with Oscar's grandfather and ends up encompassing quite a bit of the modern history of the Dominican Republic. And although the story hopscotches back and forth in time and location quite a bit, Diaz has complete command of his narrative.
To be fair, sometimes the story feels more like "A People's History of the Dominican Republic." than a novel about a geeky kid from New Jersey. Not that this is a bad thing -- Diaz manages to get at the political, economic, and psychological forces that brought so many Dominican immigrants to the U.S . over the last fifty years via captivating and dextrous prose. The dominant theme of this multigenerational story is the "fuku" (curse) Oscar's family lives under. (Of course, as Yunior points out, every Dominican family believes itself to be cursed by the fuku americanus, a curse brought by European colonialists which has turned the Caribbean Eden into a despotic prison to be escaped.)s The fuku first hits Oscar's grandfather, an upper-class doctor undone by the rise of the Trujillo thugocracy (equal to that of Saddam Hussein in horror inflicted on its subjects). His daughter (Oscar's mother) faces her own tragedy due to the fuku, and is the bridge between life in the D.R. and life in America, as she escapes to New York. Her children, Oscar and Lola, represent the generation born and bred in the U.S. -- both connected to, and apart from their Dominican heritage.
The story thus enables Diaz to examine how nationality, culture, and language become more and more blended over generations (non-Spanish speakers should note that the book is full of untranslated Spanish words and phrases, which can be a little frustrating at times). The segments of the book set in the D.R. under the Trujillo regime tend to be a great deal more compelling than the contemporary storyline. The story of Oscar's mother's childhood and teen years are far more colorful and dramatic than the on-again, off-again romance between Yunior and Oscar's sister Lola, and are definitely more interesting than Oscar's own geeky problems. Fat, obsessive, and devoid of social skills, Oscar makes it hard for people (including the reader) to sympathize with him and his dual dreams of becoming the "Dominican Tolkein" and losing his virginity. The final section of the book, in which Oscar pursues love with the trademark oblivious obsession that has made him an outcast, is pretty much straightforward classical doomed love, and thus the least interesting and convincing.
The overall effect of the book is a good deal more sad and depressing than I had expected. Although the title and opening chapter alert the reader to the brevity of Oscar's life, for some reason, I hadn't expected it to unfold quite as pathetically and tragically as it does. Similar tragedies unfold in the previous generations, and by the end of the book, there is little consolation of any kind to be found. Diaz writes with so much compassion for his characters that one would be hard pressed not to be affected. However, the sexual themes that pervade all the storylines act as somewhat of a life-affirming counterbalance to all the death and disappointment. And above all, there is the sheer exuberance and dexterity of the prose, which makes the book well worth reading from a purely stylistic or technical perspective. Not exactly a masterpiece, but well worth reading.