I decided reading Pulitzer winners would be a good idea after reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In line at Bookman’s, I saw The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on that little table where the put the bestsellers and books of critical/popular acclaim. I thought, Hey, I’ve been wanting to read that. I bought it. I don’t remember what I was actually in line to buy.
Oscar Wao sat on my shelf for awhile. That’s what happens to most of the books I buy. I don’t know why I picked it up. It has nothing to do with anything I’ve been reading, studying, or doing at work. Maybe that’s why I picked it up.
I don’t quit books. I almost quit Oscar Wao. The only book I’ve ever quit in the middle was The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. It was insufferably bleak, plus I already knew the twist at the end. Oscar Wao is not insufferably bleak, but there is a certain bleakness (it does begin with a discussion of fukú, the notion of being cursed in the Caribbean) added to a certain rawness made of the characters’ identities in sexual behavior and abusive/broken relationships. I’ve been searching for the right phrasing for why I wanted to quit that book, and I’ve come down to this: it’s just not a hopeful book. But I didn’t quit, and I have Eugene Peterson to thank for that.
See, when I read The Contemplative Pastor, I read an entire chapter focused on Peterson advising pastors not to forget to view the people in their churches as sinners. He says some beautiful things about sinners, the foremost of which is the clarification that the term is not a “theological designation” nor a “moralistic judgment.”
He points out that it is not a term dealing in comparisons between you and me and everyone we know and hear about on the news. There is no more or less involved, no relativity at all. Peterson would have us realize that referring to someone as a sinner “is not a blast at his manners or his morals. It is the theological belief that the thing thatmatters most to him is forgiveness and grace.”
Forgiveness and grace matter to broken people. Oscar Wao is full of broken people. Oscar is an obese kid who fails in the Ladies Dept. and thus exiles himself to Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy literature, and the hopes of one day making it as a sci-fi writer. Lola, his older sister, is a runner both literally (she’s the star of the track team) and figuratively (difficulties send her away: away to college, away to Europe, away to Santo Domingo, away away away but always returning, too). Belí, their mother, is defined by abandonment during her childhood (the climax of that portion of her life involves a full-back hot oil burn and confinement in a chicken coop) and objectification from adolescence on (the men in her life only see the body that takes her from unknown to a fling with the most popular kid in town to a fling with a character we only know as the Gangster—yeah, that doesn’t end well for her).
I saw all these broken people and I challenged myself to keep going. I saw some connection to the brokenness I’ve seen in lives of people I’ve known and loved since coming to Tucson. I saw a connection to how we talk about influencing culture instead of being influenced by culture (this book is soaked with What It Is To Be Dominican). I saw a connection to what I talked about this summer: Jesus did not shrink away from coming to save broken people, which I am, a sinner, just as much as people like Oscar, Lola, and Belí.
So I kept going. I finished the book. It won’t be one I recommend to people, but I’m glad I didn’t quit it because Jesus doesn’t quit broken people, and churches are made of them, too, including ours. Reading about characters like this helps me dig into the motivations, reactions, and consequences that come up in real lives around me.