This book about an immigrant family from the Dominican Republic took the author something like eleven years to write. So much for the concept of overnight sensation. But all that hard work paid off; the book won a the John Sargent Senior First Novel Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, AND the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
What we have is the story of the brutal years of Trujillo’s presidency, overlaid with the personal story of Beli de Leon, her life in the DR and her escape to the United States, where she had a short marriage, and two children, raising them in Patterson, New Jersey.
For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattled Thief, and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR’s political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror;
The book is littered with Spanish words and expressions, intermingled with $5 vocabulary like Schadenfreude, not to mention the street language we are all familiar with. It contains literary allusions to works as diverse as Proust and Gormenghast.
It is on its surface the story of ugly, fat, mega-nerd Oscar, who had two nerd friends in school, but no more, and never had a girlfriend. Never kissed a girl. Never got laid. Poor Oscar.
Every day, he watched the ‘cool’ kids torture the crap out of the fat, the ugly, the smart, the poor, the dark, the black the unpopular, the African, the Indian, the Arab, the immigrant, the strange, the feminino, the gay — and in every one of these clashes he saw himself.
Oscar loved the role playing games, sci fi, fantasy, comic books, anime. All the traditional nerd fare. When he is in college, he begins to find some solace in writing fantasy sci fi. He has a sister, something of a wild child, but one who makes herself fit in, but they clash as she tries to help him.
The mother is a tough cookie; she has to be to have survived what she went through in the Dominican Republic; but it has taken its emotional toll, and she is unable to show love and affection to her two children.
Then there is the grandmother, La Inca, in DR, the story of Beli’s father and how he tried to save his daughters from the clutches of Trujillo, and numerous other interweaving characters and their stories.
This is a big sprawling tale, narrated by the ex-boyfriend of the sister, and tackles the big sprawling themes of racial identity, patria, self identity, family, and the long-term response to trauma, as well as the effect of history itself on the individual. It is, ultimately, the story of the search for love and happiness, as is every story.
It is a gripping tale. It grabs you by the clavicles, and doesn’t let go. Even after you close the book.