Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952
The Dominican Republic is presented by the unidentified narrator as a focal point of the fukú, a curse of doom brought to the island by Christopher Columbus (known to the Dominicans merely as “the Admiral”). No Dominican family goes untouched by the fukú, each one knowing someone whose life has been altered, even ended, by this curse.
One such person is Oscar, the son of Dominican immigrants living in Paterson, New Jersey, during the time period of 1974 through 1987. Attractive as a young boy, Oscar managed to have two girlfriends in elementary school: Maritza, a lovely and popular girl, and Olga, less attractive but having a primal and tragic presence for Oscar. When Maritza forces Oscar to choose between herself and Olga, Oscar chooses the more attractive Maritza. However, a week later, Maritza is seen with another boy and effectively dumps Oscar. Devastated, Oscar sinks into self-pity and the self-destructive behavior of overeating. By high school, Oscar is well over two hundred pounds and is the object of much hazing and teasing. Adding to his marginalization is his obsessive interest in science fiction and fantasy, particularly in role-playing games. However, the most damning fact about Oscar is his virginity. In a catch-22, Oscar cannot get a girlfriend because he has never had a girlfriend. This lowers himself in the eyes of the Dominican community. Even his best friends are embarrassed by his failures in romance. His sister Lola is his only support.
In his SAT study class, Oscar meets Ana, an attractive girl who had a 24-year-old boyfriend when she was thirteen. Ana admits that this boyfriend, Manny, beat her regularly. Manny is now in prison but is soon to be released.
Ana unaccountably enjoys spending time with Oscar, who inevitably falls in love with her. When Manny is released and is reunited with Ana, Oscar is heartbroken. When Ana shows up with bruises and admits to being beaten by Manny, Oscar takes his uncle’s gun and waits for Manny to arrive at his apartment. When Manny never shows up, Oscar returns home, admitting to his sister Lola his intentions. She is horrified that he would risk his life for revenge.
Oscar is accepted into Rutgers University, where he hopes to make a new start. However, he once again falls into the same routine of alienation and rejection.
The narrator of the first chapter is an interested and biased bystander, someone familiar with Oscar and the family, even hinting that he is somehow involved in the story. Told occasionally in the first person, the point of view is mainly semi-omniscient, as the narrator is flashing back to the events portrayed from the benefit of hindsight. The narrator’s use of footnotes to relate historical information (though from a personally biased angle) adds a feeling of reality to the tale.
The setting is based in the Dominican ghetto of Paterson, New Jersey, a region of urban blight and crime. The residents resort to drugs, sex, and crime to fill their lives with some sort of purpose or, at least, activity. The use of the introductory material relates the foundation of the tragic lives of the characters in the form of a curse known as fukú.
Oscar’s fascination with science fiction and fantasy is mirrored in his own life. He is a model for the archetypal questing hero. Born from humble beginnings in an environment devastated by the curse of the fukú, Oscar is called by the community to fulfill a quest (in this instance, the conquest of women). The “sins of the father” are reflected in the references to his grandfather, who as a prominent physician in the Dominican Republic was imprisoned and fell from grace. Oscar rises to early success in elementary school, managing to have two girlfriends at once. However, he falls from this position of “power,” succumbing to being less than he was. With his sister Lola functioning as his mentor, he continues his quest to lose his virginity. He is called in the process to rescue the “princess,” in this case Ana, the object of his love in high school. By intending to confront and kill her abusive boyfriend Manny, Oscar is portrayed as a “slayer of the dragon” that holds the “princess” captive. His failure to do so leads to the failure of his quest. The Dominican community remains under the curse.
Oscar also assumes the role in the Arthurian fantasy relating to the Fisher King, whose kingdom has become a wasteland due to his wound from the Dolorous Stroke. Until the wound is healed, the realm and its people will continue under the curse. In Oscar’s community, the fukú has laid a curse on Dominicans wherever they are. Oscar losing his virginity (which can be thought of as a symbolic “Grail," a feminine symbol) would bring healing to the land by breaking through the curse. Thus Oscar’s success or failure in this area has a hidden effect on the Dominican community as a whole.
Oscar’s characterization as the “lovable loser” invites sympathy from the reader. His role as a tragic hero highlights the theme of loss and redemption that pervades this chapter. Like Oscar, the Dominicans are all seeking something but not finding it. Oscar’s own failure to complete his quest successfully is foreshadowed by the narrator in referring to Oscar's early death. The narrator speaks of Lola’s desire to put the name “Mister” (her affectionate name for Oscar) on his tombstone, hinting that, as the title suggests, Oscar’s life will be brief. The thread of despair and ineffectualness runs through the chapter, preparing the reader for the tragic outcome and giving the lie to the “wondrous” life.