This book was the Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction for 2009 and many of us were caught by surprise by that announcement. This book is not typical of other lofty works of fiction that are awarded this highest honor: Spanish dialog and slang is plentiful but not translated; there are dozens of footnotes to explain the historical references; and, finally, author Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and didn’t move to New Jersey until he was six.
The Brief Wondrous Life was selected by the New Jersey Library Association as its One Book New Jersey presumably because the author grew up and was educated in New Jersey. Much of the story takes place in Patterson, New Jersey and addresses the immigrant culture of the “DR’s,” but much can be applied to any group of immigrants.
There are many fine book reviews out there that will provide a good synopsis of the novel. What I most enjoyed about this book wasn’t about the plot. The characters pulled me into their lives and made me their companions. I sat in the kitchen with La Inca and worried what we were going to do with rebellious Beli; I went on dates with Beli even though I knew the gangster would be horrible. I feared for my life in Trujillo’s dictatorship along with everyone else. I learned a little, OK, a lot of history along the way. Dominican Republic History 101 wasn’t taught in my high school. I also walked down College Avenue in New Brunswick with Oscar and Yunior, and I already knew a little something about that. Diaz made Oscar so lifelike that I never felt I could make him my buddy, and that had nothing to do with his being from the Dominican Republic. He was so clueless and awkward around young women that Douglass girls would likely cross the street to avoid him. Yunior, on the other hand, was the guy who you wanted to be seen with at Tumulty’s Pub for Brunch on Sunday.
This novel does one of my favorite novel-tricks: in medias res. It starts in the middle and toggles back and forth with flashbacks and catch-ups. A common lament of readers in book clubs will be to declare that a book “was all over the place.” Pass that book over to me. I don’t know Spanish but I figured out the gist of the expressions well enough. No hay problema.