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A love supreme

Susan Straight, a professor at UC Riverside, is the author of six novels, most recently "A Million Nightingales."

Un maldito hombre. More dangerous than comic supervillains and monsters, devious and controlling, and in some cases, as with Rafael Trujillo, “the dictatingest dictator that ever lived,” who wrecked the Dominican Republic for generations, stronger than prayer or God. Un maldito hombre is what Oscar Wao, the ghetto supernerd hero of Junot Díaz’s much-awaited first novel, is not.

That is why his life is brief, and why it is wondrous.

Everyone will be talking about how 11 years have passed since “Drown,” Díaz’s first book, and why it has taken so long for him to finish this one. But this summer, I saw my first panoramic painting in Switzerland. A circular work that takes up the top story of a museum, the panoramic is designed to illuminate and educate and move people; it took years to complete this painting, which is about the aftermath of one battle on the disputed French-Swiss border and includes thousands of human and animal subjects to draw the viewer in.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is panoramic and yet achingly personal. It’s impossible to categorize, which is a good thing. There’s the epic novel, the domestic novel, the social novel, the historical novel and the “language” novel. People talk about the Great American Novel and the immigrant novel. Pretty reductive. Díaz’s novel is a hell of a book. It doesn’t care about categories. It’s densely populated; it’s obsessed with language. It’s Dominican and American, not about immigration but diaspora, in which one family’s dramas are entwined with a nation’s, not about history as information but as dark-force destroyer.

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Really, it’s a love novel.

And it’s narrated by a man who keeps rejecting love, not a member of Oscar’s family but rather Yunior -- yes, for those who’ve read “Drown,” I’m talking about Yunior, whose brother is gone and whose mother was raised in the D.R. Yunior is the last guy you’d expect to narrate this novel, which is why he might be perfect for the task.

So Yunior tells Oscar’s story, ferociously and aggressively and with some guilt. And he doesn’t care whether you, the reader, get lost. You’d better keep up, figure out the context and immerse yourself, which is the same thing I’ve always felt about those writers from the dominant culture who expect me to know terms and slang and references I might never have heard, considering where I grew up.

Oscar is a dark-skinned, overweight, obsessive consumer of books and comics, a writer who can’t get a girl. In a swath of New Jersey that Yunior acknowledges is bursting with fine women, no girl will consider Oscar, except as pathetic confidant. After a series of rejections by his sister’s friends, Yunior explains: “These were Oscar’s furies, his personal pantheon, the girls he most dreamed about . . . who eventually found their way into his little stories. In his dreams he was either saving them from aliens or he was returning to the neighborhood, rich and famous -- It’s him! The Dominican Stephen King! -- and then Marisol would appear, carrying one each of his books for him to sign. . . . Maritza he still watched from afar, convinced that one day, when the nuclear bombs fell (or the plague broke out or the Tripods invaded) and civilization was wiped out he would end up saving her from a pack of irradiated ghouls and together they’d set out across a ravaged America in search of a better tomorrow.”

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I told you, it’s a love novel. When Oscar and Yunior room together at Rutgers, Yunior says, “Trying to talk sense to Oscar about girls was like trying to throw rocks at Unus the Untouchable. Dude was impenetrable. He’d hear me out and then shrug. Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.”

There you have it. Love equals sex, something no woman is willing to have with Oscar, and so begins his quest. Oscar comes by this naturally, not only because he’s Dominican American but because he is the only son of Hypatia Belicia Cabral, who hijacks the book for long periods with Díaz’s inimitable passion and style.

I haven’t even brought up the fuku. This is the curse that suffuses the novel, precipitated by the arrival of an unnamed, yet easily identified, admiral who lands pale people on the shores of the D.R. The curse is, generations later, violently reinforced by Trujillo and his minions. It is specifically suffered by Belicia’s father, who is not un maldito hombre but a weak and loving man, and then passed down to his daughter, who was born after his death.

O, Beli, for whom love also equals sex. She has the desire every girl has -- a prince will come and save me from my life -- only her prince is a 40-year-old married man known as the Gangster, un maldito hombre for sure, who doesn’t save her at all. Pregnant, taken to a cane field where she is beaten savagely and left for dead, Beli saves herself with the help of her aunt, La Inca, who prays for her:

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“All hope was gone, but then, True Believers, like the Hand of the Ancestors themselves, a miracle. Just as our girl was set to disappear across that event horizon, just as the cold of obliteration was stealing up her legs, she found in herself one last reservoir of strength. . . . Like Superman in ‘Dark Knight Returns,’ who drained from an entire jungle the photonic energy he needed to survive Coldbringer, so did our Beli resolve out of her anger her own survival. In other words, her coraje saved her life.” Eventually Belicia flees to Paterson, N.J., where she is abandoned once more and raises her daughter, Lola, and her son, Oscar, with a deadly and unavoidable combination of anger and obsession -- what other way would she know?

Lola has her own sections of the novel. Because she inherited her mother’s ferocity and some of her looks, and has her own wide-ranging passions, she and Belicia fight. Lola is everything her mother is afraid of. “A punk chick. That’s what I became. A Siouxsie and the Banshees-loving punk chick. The puertorican kids on the block couldn’t stop laughing when they saw my hair, they called me Blacula. . . . But my mother was the worst. It’s the last straw, she screamed. The. Last. Straw. But it always was with her.”

Lola survives her battles, is sent to the D.R. to live with La Inca, and always, always tries both to save Oscar and not to love the promiscuous Yunior. She cannot accomplish the first but eventually achieves the second.

In the end, Oscar finds love, and has sex, with Ybon, mistress to un maldito hombre. Yet true to the characters he’s created, Díaz doesn’t let some artificial transformation take place in Oscar. He remains, lamentably, himself. He doesn’t come to a grand realization that what he’s previously had -- platonic companionship -- might be close to love. How could it, given what he’s learned?

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So yes, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a love novel, but love does not conquer all. It does not save Oscar, or his mother, or rescue Lola, who rescues herself.

Yet love persists, weary and loyal and resigned at the end of the novel, in the friendship of Lola and Yunior. Love survives as a story, which happens so often in fiction about those in danger from poverty, political horror, slavery, racism and genocide.

Yunior? His dazzling wordplay is impressive. But by the end, it is his tenderness and loyalty and melancholy that breaks the heart. That is wondrous in itself. It takes novelistic audacity for Díaz to make his narrator at first anonymous, unconcerned about whether his language is accessible, flawed and angry at his upbringing (again, familiar to those who’ve read “Drown”).

Yunior cannot save himself either, for a long, long time. No victory at the end. Instead, he and Lola construct lives that are in their own ways triumphal, although washed with the regret of the left-behind and the not-quite. No all-encompassing heroic love for them.

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Except that Yunior loved Oscar. And by the novel’s close, he is ready to reveal that complicated history of love and violence and obsession, a history as recorded by Oscar Wao and by Yunior, the humble Watcher, the DarkZoner, the one who didn’t dance but knows all the music by now.


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