Wao is a simple book, really, about the Dominican-American experience: Trujillo was a really bad hombre and every Dominican, native or diasporic—with the possible exception of Oscar—has a little Trujillo in him. And, of course, the original source of this evil was Cristóbal Colón (he who must not be named).
Like the hero of another, funnier, Pulitzer winner—A Confederacy of Dunces—Oscar is fat and slovenly. A sci-fi nerd in a Jersey barrio. For the most part, his story is narrated, Gatsby-style, by one Yunior, a weight-lifting lothario. Yunior was Oscar's college roommate and friend and his sister's erstwhile boyfriend. And this is the source of the problem: the book feels third-hand; Yunior does not witness most of what he narrates, but gets the story second-hand, presumably from Oscar's notebooks and interviews with Lola, Oscar's sister, and, one surmises, others of the principals. Oscar, the anti-Trujillo, never comes into clean focus. As the lawyers say, it's all hearsay and double hearsay—inadmissible as evidence.
Wao is an entertaining narrative. One could conjure words like sweeping, multi-generational, saga, epic—it certainly aspires to them (and that's no doubt what moved the Pulitzer committee). The reader learns a great deal about the tortured history of the Dominican Republic, often in clever DFW-style footnotes. Corruption, desire, sex, violence, death, supernatural curses, hidden secrets, deep disappointment, and buried sorrow pepper the tale. Complex characters don't. In Gatsby-type stories, the Nick Carraways are tasked not only to shed light on their enigmatic eponyms but, often unwittingly or unbeknownst to themselves, on themselves. Yunior, the teller here, just sort of slinks off at the end with an "I'll-never-forget-that-crazy-fat-guy-with-his-wacky-comic-books-and-his-mixed-up-mom-and-I'd-still-like-to-tap-his-hot-sister's-culo" sentiment.
The other aspiration of Wao is what I will call the War and Peace motive: it attempts to show the fate of an individual or group intertwined with significant history. Again, Wao comes up short. The individual, Oscar, is insufficiently illumined and the de Leons are scant Rostovs. It also leads to pacing problems: the entire third section dealing with Oscar's mother's sojourn in the DR with the gangster feels overlong, though necessary for the War and Peace effect, and takes the reader right out of whatever immediacy the narrative had already won.
Stylistically, Wao succeeds supremely. The narrative employs the Dominican Spanglish of the barrio. The voices of its characters are equally adept in English and Spanish and mix the two ad lib. This lends an air of authenticity to the text. One suspects Díaz knows this lingo intimately. Faulkner, of course, was a pioneer of this technique and, among Southerners, 'redneck-ese' has become cliched from overuse. In Díaz, however, the narrative voice still seems as fresh as the Dominican immigrant experience.
Where Wao falters is in its failure to found the emotional lives of its characters on their sensuous experience. The narrative (and the book is almost entirely narrative, as opposed to dialogue and action) is chilly and the characters distant. The reader does not perceive the world through their eyes (or ears or noses or fingertips or tongues, for that matter). Rather, reading the book is a mere mental/intellectual exercise when it could, and should, be so much more. We simply do not sympathize with the characters—and by this I do not mean we have to like them. We are not drawn viscerally into their emotional experience. We are told of their great sorrow or reticence or desire, we aren't shown it from within. The closest we get, and this particular passage jumped out at me when I read it, is in a passage beginning on p. 221:
At one of the interminable presidential events El Jefe had shaken Abelard's hand, but instead of moving on, he paused—a nightmare come true—held on to his fingers, and said in his shrill voice: You are Dr. Abelard Cabral? Abelard bowed. At your service, You Excellency. In less than a nanosecond Abelard was drenched in sweat; he knew what was coming next; the Failed Cattle Thief had never spoken more than three words to him his whole life, what else could it be? He dared not glance away from Trujillo's heavily powdered face, but out the corner of his eyes he caught glimpses of the lambesacos, hovering, beginning to realize that an exchange was in the making.
No other passage in the book approaches this power—not even the sugar cane field beating scenes. Trujillo the tinpot dictator, because of the sensuousness of the presentation, seems larger than life: the tinny fear-inducing voice, the cowing power grip that twists and traps clammy fingers together, the powdered face(!!). Clearly, Díaz can write in close. One only wishes he had done so and to such profound effect oftener throughout. If, for no other reason, for Oscar's sake.