You might just call it bad luck – believable enough, in a country like the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, where good luck was not so much rare as almost completely absent – but when it strikes three generations of a family, and strikes with such appalling and systematic ferocity as we witness in this novel, you begin to feel there must be some supernatural agent behind the accumulated misfortune, something bearing a grudge. That’s just easier to accept than sixty straight years of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some would blame the Devil; others, like Shalom Auslander, would keep things simple and just blame God. But Yunior, the main narrator of this book, has his own explanation. He’s our guide to three generations of Oscar’s family, and along the way, he becomes our guide to some seventy years of the Dominican Republic’s ghastly history. He blames something called “fukú – generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World.” Or rather the other way around: the fukú was unleashed upon the New World generally, when Columbus ran aground, as it happens, on Hispaniola; but individuals can also incur its specific wrath, and experience it down through the generations, should they cross anyone who has an “understanding” with it. And if you dare to disbelieve? “It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe,” Yunior tells us. “In fact, it’s better than fine – it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.”
As to the fukú that believes in Oscar’s family, it was placed on them by Trujillo himself, the Dominican dictator whose 31-year reign was one of the bloodiest of the twentieth century – some accomplishment, that. In Yunior’s words, he was a “portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery.” Yuck. But fukú was on his side: “it was clear he and it had an understanding … them two was tight.” After all, Kennedy was the one who ordered Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 – and we all know what happened to his people. If the mighty can be brought down by fukú, so can the lowly.
It might be expected that such a dictator would treat the women of his realm as his own personal property, and in fact Yunior makes an analogy with Tolkien: “hiding your doe-eyed, large-breasted daughter from Trujillo … [was] like keeping the Ring from Sauron.” Unfortunately, Oscar’s grandfather Abelard had just such a daughter. He kept her away from Trujillo, but at a price. The only descendent of that generation to survive was an illegitimate daughter that Abelard managed to sire before he was put in prison for the rest of his days. This daughter would be named Beli, and she would eventually become Oscar’s mother. She also happens to be the most remarkable character in the novel, an intense and determined woman who undergoes such suffering as would destroy almost anyone else, and each scene in the long section devoted to her youth – the days before she ran afoul of the Trujillato in her own right and had to flee the island – is unforgettable and indelible. Next to his mother, Oscar seems like a decidedly minor character.
Which brings us to one of the strangest things about this book: it’s named for a character whose personal story is hardly the most compelling available. At first there seems nothing so unusual about his afflictions. He spends his adolescence in a familiar purgatory: overweight, lacking not a little in personal hygiene, much too interested in fantasy and sci-fi, in anime, in role-playing games – and seemingly condemned to pine after girls (a longing sharpened by a platonic friendship or two) without ever experiencing the thrill of being desired. “Sucks to be left out of adolescence,” Yunior writes, “sort of like being locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.” Sure, it’s odd for a Dominican kid to be thus afflicted, but that’s far from impossible. However, one thing gradually becomes clear well before the end of the book: Oscar’s place is at the end of a long multigenerational saga, and his life only attains significance when you understand his role in that saga. Namely, Oscar’s role is to lift the fukú from the family. Or to try. Yunior tells us of the one known antidote: “not surprisingly, it was a word. A simple word (followed usually by a vigorous crossing of index fingers).” The word is zafa. He continues: “even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell.” Maybe the word didn’t work in the first place, or maybe nobody said it when it could still help, so now it falls to Oscar to contrive a supreme personal sacrifice and thereby satisfy this particular fukú for all time. Or so Yunior seems to hope, when near the end he contemplates Oscar’s niece, an innocent and beautiful baby who as yet has no idea just what history she is heir to.
I said ‘contrive’; the word is a considered choice. Because, to be honest, the conclusion is not all that convincing. Yet the book is a major success anyway on account of Yunior’s charming, hypnotic voice, which is impressive in its rhetorical range: he deploys the words pulchritude and pendejo with equal panache, not to mention coinages like pimp-liness, and Diaz peppers his narrative with uncountable references to everything from Shakespeare and Henry Miller, to Lord of the Rings and “Star Trek,” to sci-fi and anime that most people have never heard of in their lives. (Until now.) The propulsive energy of this voice, combined with its wild mixture of high and low diction and an impeccable sense of timing, keeps you reading right through the last page even when the story being told is basically ridiculous. It’s like watching somebody juggle eleven hula hoops, three basketballs and half a dozen flaming torches for hours without once dropping anything. He simply never misses a beat, and it is absolutely compelling to the last moment. We had to wait ten years for this tour de force from Diaz, and if he turns out to need another ten years for his second novel – well, if it’s anything like this one, it’ll be worth the wait.