Oscar, a fat Dominican growing up in New Jersey who loves comic books and science fiction, and "wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber ... Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to" aspires to become the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien, and aches to find love, but this is not primarily an ugly duckling story. It leapfrogs from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, and from the 1940s to the late 1990s, presenting the stories of Oscar's family as a microcosm of the Dominican and immigrant experiences. His sister Lola struggles wildly against her role as "the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave," running away to a no-good Jersey Shore boyfriend and eventually to her grandmother's bakery in the DR in hopes of finding love and belonging. Their mother Belicia, orphaned in infancy and maltreated by the distant relations who took her in, parlays her beauty and courage into what she thinks is lasting love with the Gangster, a Trujillo henchman ... only to learn, in a heartbreaking and brutal fashion, that not only is he married, but his wife is Trujillo's sister. Diaz then takes us even further back, to the story of Belicia's father Abelard, a wealthy doctor whose favored status with the Trujillo regime goes tragically wrong when he refuses to introduce his beautiful eldest daughter to the lecherous dictator.
Themes of fate, cursedness, and familial influence vs. individual choice abound throughout the novel. Central to these is fuku, which the book's narrator, Yunior (Oscar's college roommate, and Lola's one-time boyfriend), explains thus:
Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku -- generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. ...Do we choose our own destinies, or are we compelled to follow in our elders' footsteps, forever haunted by their choices and experiences? Are some settings (i.e., the DR under Trujillo's regime, which Diaz elucidates in both footnotes and the main text "for those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history") so horrific as to beg for a supernatural explanation? The novel raises but, fittingly, never answers these questions; instead, it leaves you thinking and wondering long after you turn the last page.
[F]uku doesn't always strike like lightening. Sometimes it works patiently, drowning a nigger by degrees ... Sometimes it's slow and sometimes it's fast. It's doom-ish in that way, makes it harder to put a finger on, to brace yourself against. But be assured, like Darkseid's Omega Effect, like Morgoth's bane, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always -- and I mean always -- gets its man. ... It's perfectly fine if you don't believe in these "superstitions." In fact, it's better than fine -- it's perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fuku believes in you.
My one quibble, and it's a fairly minor one, is with the female characters. Diaz devotes plenty of screen time to Lola and Beli -- together, they probably get at least as much as Oscar -- but we see a lot more of their physical attributes than I might have liked, and not quite as much of what's inside their heads making them tick, particularly in Beli's case. This may just be one of my own issues -- perhaps Beli's only option for surviving and escaping was to trade on her, um, generous physical assets, and little else about her mattered -- but there it is.
Will write more if and when it occurs to me, and I think it will -- I'll be absorbing this one for a while. In the meantime, it's an excellent read ... both enjoyable and provocative. Highly recommended.