It won a Pulitzer Prize, so you know it's got to be pretty good. And it was funny, sometimes, but at other times heartwrenchingly sad.
Synopsis: Oscar Wao is a Dominican emigrant living in the northeast (okay, I can't remember if it's Jersey or New York... details) and he is everything a Dominican lad is not supposed to be: hopeless when it comes to the ladies, obese, and waaaaay into sci-fi and fantasy novels and games. This is a boy who eats, sleeps, and dreams Dungeons and Dragons, who was once a 7 year old Lothario but lost his game, and whose only two friends - both Grade-A nerds like himself - are ashamed of how nerdy Oscar is.
The book isn't narrated by an omniscient God, but is told by several different people: Oscar's sister Lola, Lola's boyfriend (who took pity on Oscar and roomed with him in college) and another narrator whose identity I never quite pinned down. Oscar's family history is divulged - his grandfather's persecution by Trujillo and his mother's horrifying fate following the family's breakup - and the various relationships he has with those family members is discussed at length, but always through the eyes of someone else.
The book is breathtaking, and a bit of sci-fi/fantasy knowledge is helpful because bits of Tolkien and Lovecraft are discussed. The book wrestles with Oscar's identity: no longer Dominican, but also not like the other Dominicans living in the U.S.
I bought my copy of the book at Half Priced Books, because there were four paperback copies marked between $8.00 (pristine) and $5.00 (looked the same as the $8.00), and I scooped up the $5.00 copy.
I forgot to check to see what on earth could have led to the book being marked so cheaply, and then began reading. Oscar Wao is laced with bits of Dominican slang and snippets of Spanish, and the reader before me appears to have had the same grasp of the Spanish language that I have:
We know just enough to know when to be offended.
The harmless words that translate to "wicked" and "disgusting" are underlined with abandon, and the translations are penciled into the margins. The curse words, however, are all left alone.
It's like we were separated at birth! Or, at least, at the end of college.
The book does not have a happy ending, but it's also not completely a sad ending. Oscar takes a stand, and he suffers for it, but he also reaches new heights of ecstasy, both physical and spiritual. He is, by the book's end, changed in both mind and body, and I couldn't help but be happy for him. Throughout his wretched life, he let the things he wanted slip away, but at the end, he took what he wanted and he was blissfully happy, if only for a short time.
Oscar isn't an entirely lovable character. I wanted to shake him, several times (and did, in fact, find myself jerking the book around, as if Oscar could feel my frustration), but his faults are what make him so endearing as a character.
And no, his last name is not Wao: it's an in-joke that I didn't learn the meaning of until midway through the book, and then I couldn't help but smile, despite the fact that the nickname "Wao" is meant as a bullying tease to Oscar.
Oscar Wao is a wonderful book, and is truly wondrous, but it's also not for someone who wants a "feel good" book to read. There are no tidily wrapped up murders with jokey detectives, and no "happily ever after," but I'm glad I read it, all the same.
(The picture is the author's photo from the book cover; I think he's wearing makeup)