Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Youth

By Junot Díaz

Youth

Chapter 1

High school was Don Bosco Tech, and since Don Bosco Tech was an urban all-boys Catholic school packed to the strakes with a couple hundred insecure hyperactive adolescents, it was, for a fat sci-fi-reading nerd like Oscar, a source of endless anguish. For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits, an experience from which he supposed he should have emerged a better person, but that's not really what happened—and if there were any lessons to be gleaned from the ordeal of those years he never quite figured out what they were. He walked to school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror. (1.1.2.1)

High school kids can be cruel. This is a known fact. What's also sad to us about this passage is that Oscar will later return to Don Bosco. First, Oscar comes back as a substitute teacher, and then, as a full-time teacher. It's possible that Oscar only breaks away from this painful "medieval spectacle" when he visits the Dominican Republic. High school, man. High school…

And the lovely Maritza Chacón? The hypotenuse of our triangle, how had she fared? Well, before you could say Oh Mighty Isis, Maritza blew up into the flyest guapa [pretty girl] in Paterson, one of the Queens of New Peru. Since they stayed neighbors, Oscar saw her plenty, a ghetto Mary Jane, hair as black and lush as a thunderhead, probably the only Peruvian girl on the planet with pelo curlier than his sister's (he hadn't heard of Afro-Peruvians yet, or of a town called Chincha), her body fine enough to make old men forget their infirmities, and from the sixth grade on dating men two, three times her age. (Maritza might not have been good at much—not sports, not school, not work—but she was good at men.) (1.1.1.20)

Maritza's experience of puberty is similar to Lola and Beli's experiences. Both Lola and Beli become guapas [pretty girls]. They discover just how powerful their good looks can be—and the influence they can have over men.

Not that his "girlfriends" fared much better. It seemed that whatever bad no-love karma hit Oscar hit them too. By seventh grade Olga had grown huge and scary, a troll gene in her somewhere, started drinking 151 straight out of the bottle and was finally taken out of school because she had a habit of screaming NATAS! [tits] in the middle of homeroom. Even her breasts, when they finally emerged, were floppy and terrifying. (1.1.1.19)

A good number of the characters in Wao are hit hard by puberty. Olga is no exception. This description of Olga sounds like a pretty extreme case, though, in our opinion. The fact that she starts drinking seriously strong rum suggests that she isn't too happy with all these changes in her body, and her life.

Chapter 2

And that's when it hit with the force of a hurricane. The feeling. I stood straight up, the way my mother always wanted me to stand up. My abuela was sitting there, forlorn, trying to cobble together the right words and I could not move or breathe. I felt like I always did at the last seconds of a race, when I was sure that I was going to explode. She was about to say something and I was waiting for whatever she was going to tell me. I was waiting to begin. (1.2.1.103)

Lola calls this "feeling" her "bruja" [witch] feeling. She seems to be following in the footsteps of our narrator, who seems to believe most things relate back to the supernatural. We know Lola and Yunior's relationship didn't work out, but they sure share a strong belief in the fantastic. Lola's restlessness as an adolescent isn't a stage—it's possession by witchy spirits. Freaky. We thought puberty was bad enough…

We were walking down Main and being stared at by everybody and out of nowhere I said, Karen, I want you to cut my hair. As soon as I said it I knew. The feeling in my blood, the rattle, came over me again. Karen raised her eyebrow: What about your mother? You see, it wasn't just me, everybody was scared of Belicia de León

F*** her, I said.

Karen looked at me like I was being stupid—I never cursed, but that was something else that was about to change. The next day we locked ourselves in her bathroom and downstairs her father and uncles were bellowing at some soccer game. Well, how do you want it? she asked. I looked at the girl in the mirror for a long time. All I knew was that I didn't want to see her ever again. I put the clippers in Karen's hand, turned them on, and guided her hand until it was all gone. (1.2.1.16-1.2.1.18)

All the pangs of adolescence show up this passage. You want anger? Rebellion? Confusion about who you are? Look no further than Wao.

Chapter 3

And would have stayed invisible too if the summer of sophomore year she'd not hit the biochemical jackpot, not experienced a Summer of Her Secondary Sex Characteristics, not been transformed utterly (a terrible beauty has been born). Where before Beli had been a gangly ibis of a girl, pretty in a typical sort of way, by summer's end she'd become un mujerón total [full-grown woman], acquiring that body of hers that made her famous in Baní. (1.3.5.9)

Like we mentioned earlier, Beli and Lola gain some pretty significant sway over men when they hit "the biochemical jackpot." But we'd also like to note that these new looks usually lead to trouble. Belie ends up attracting The Gangster. And remember Jacquelyn, who attracts Trujillo's attention? While hotness can make women powerful, in a way, it also makes them much more susceptible to the abuses of men.

Our girl had it made, and yet it did not feel so in her heart. For reasons she only dimly understood, by the time of our narrative, Beli could no longer abide working at the bakery or being the "daughter" of one of the "most upstanding women in Baní." She could not abide, period. Everything about her present life irked her; she wanted, with all her heart, something else. (1.3.2.7)

Lola isn't the only one who feels restless during her teenage years. Beli feels that way too. It might be worth asking, however, if this restlessness arises because of Beli or Lola's age, or because of their dissatisfaction with life in the Dominican Republic. Is this dissatisfaction, this restlessness at home, what prompts the Dominican diaspora?

Beli had the inchoate longings of nearly every adolescent escapist, of an entire generation, but I ask you: So f***ing what? No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated. This was a country, a society, that had been designed to be virtually escape-proof. Alcatraz of the Antilles. There weren't any Houdini holes in that Plátano Curtain. (1.3.2.10)

It seems like the desire to escape is much more than a teenage whim in Wao. It's also the essence of an oppressed people. Being a teenager just magnifies that desire. Our conclusion: Trujillo is a big meanie, and he drives everyone at least a little crazy.

Chapter 6

Had Don Bosco, since we last visited, been miraculously transformed by the spirit of Christian brotherhood? Had the eternal benevolence of the Lord cleansed the students of their vile? N****, please. Certainly the school struck Oscar as smaller now, and the older brothers all seemed to have acquired the Innsmouth "look" in the past five years, and there were a grip more kids of color—but some things (like white supremacy and people-of-color hate) never change: the same charge of gleeful sadism that he remembered from his youth still electrified the halls. (2.6.1.3)

For Oscar, there's another certainty in life besides death and taxes. Yep, that's right: the cruelty of other teenagers. Yikes.

It started with me. The year before Oscar fell, I suffered some nuttiness of my own; I got jumped as I walking home from the Roxy. By this mess of New Brunswick townies. A bunch of f***ing morenos [dark-skinned Dominicans]. Two a.m., and I was on Joyce Kilmer for no good reason. Alone and on foot. Why? Because I was hard, thought I'd have no problem walking through the thicket of young guns I saw on the corner. Big mistake. (2.4.1.1)

Even Yunior falls prey to some youthful nuttiness. Guess we can add Yunior to the list of others who end up in trouble because of changes during adolescence. In this instance, Yunior thinks he's tough enough to take on a whole group of young punks. He's not.