With this startling, breathless, sweetly harsh debut novel, Junot Díaz, a justifiable Pulitzer Prize winner, has managed to portray both the particularity of the inner life of a Dominican teenage boy in contemporary New Jersey, as well as draw universal conclusions about men and women, race and class.
We first meet Oscar when he is a plump little boy, loved by the girls to such an extent that they fight over him. Fast forward to his adolescence, and girls are fighting to get away from him. Oscar's isolation is compounded by his innate geekiness, his love of genre fiction, his dragon of a mother and his counter-culture sister. His mother might fit the stereotype of the fierce Latin-American mother who brings up her kids alone and works her fingers to the bone in underpaid, menial jobs to do it, but everything else about Oscar's story eschews easy assumptions.
Díaz's portrait of a society that marries sex and violence with frightening casualness is funny as well as disturbing. Oscar's sister almost expects boyfriends to treat her badly; one brief childhood girlfriend of Oscar's, Maritza, "was a girl who seemed to delight in getting slapped around by her boyfriends", while his mother acquired boyfriends as a young woman only when her breasts became huge. The machismo of second-generation Dominican-American culture is an endless source of anguish to the young Oscar, and you know that his life is going to be brief because he's too gentle for it.
In that respect, Díaz's is a routine coming-of-age story, wherein the hero is always the misunderstood outsider. But that's where familiarity with the form ends. Díaz invests it with new power, with a political consciousness and with the cultural perspective of a previously ignored ethnic group.