The Dark Age. After graduation, Oscar moves back home with his mother and futilely looks for a job in a post-Reagan economy. He starts substitute teaching at Don Bosco, his old high school, and eventually becomes a full time teacher there. Don Bosco is still as miserable as Oscar remembers, and he has no knack for teaching. The kids tease him as much as his fellow students had at Rutgers. Oscar notices that the kids doing the most teasing are the students of color, rather than the white students, as it was when he went to Don Bosco. Oscar tries to reach out to them by supporting the kids who are bullied and starting a science-fiction and fantasy club, but the students do not respond to him at all. His only friend on the staff is a fellow teacher name Nataly, but she transfers to another suburb and stops returning his calls. Al, Miggs, Maritza, and Olga have all lost touch as well, and Oscar now has no social life whatsoever.
The Dark Ages refers to the way that Oscar has stepped backward in his journey of self-discovery, returning to the high school he hated with a complete lack of a social life after the few successes he had making friends (like Yunior) at Rutgers. Oscar’s experience being teased does not make him uniquely able to help kids like his high school self; it just makes him another target for insecure bullies. Díaz continues to show that people of color can be just as harmful to other minorities (on an individual level, at least) as white people are. Oscar also has another crush that leads to absolutely nothing as he repeats the same mistakes he always makes with women.
Oscar’s family isn’t doing very well either. Lola gave up on Japan to move to New York with Yunior, Oscar’s mother is still working too hard, and his uncle Rodolfo has started using heroin again. Oscar doesn’t want to become bitter, but he can’t see any way out of it. His depression, which he calls the Darkness, also returns full force. On his bad days, he can’t get out of bed or write and he snaps at his mother.
Each of Oscar’s family members enact a different stereotype of immigrants in the United States. Lola has given up on her ambitions to take care of her boyfriend, Oscar’s mother is the over-worked laborer, and his uncle is addicted to drugs. Yet Díaz has made sure that we see those characters as more than just these one-dimensional notes, suggesting that stereotypes in the real world are also a limiting view of a person. Oscar’s depression, taking the form of a supernatural force called the Darkness, always gets worse when Oscar can’t write, as writing is how Oscar takes control of his life.
On Oscar’s good days he apologizes, and visits Lola in Washington Heights. Lola had gotten pregnant, but had an abortion when she found out that Yunior was cheating on her. Oscar keeps Lola company and starts to plan a science-fiction fantasy quartet that will make him the next Tolkien. Sometimes he dreams about the Mongoose. But these high points are erased when he realizes that the new generation of nerds don’t like the role-playing games he used to play.
Yunior completely glosses over the upheaval in Lola’s life, even the traumatic choice to have an abortion in response to Yunior’s infidelity. Yunior seems unwilling to explore that time in his life, perhaps feeling guilty about the situation. The mongoose appears when Oscar is writing again, connecting Oscar’s writing to zafa (blessing) in his life. Yet Oscar is not out of his depression yet, realizing that even the nerd culture where he used to find acceptance has left him behind.
Oscar Takes a Vacation. After Oscar has been a teacher at Don Bosco for three years, his mother decides it is time to go back to Santo Domingo, and she takes Oscar with her. Oscar is in almost high spirits; his latest diet has worked and he is excited to return to the island. Yunior praises the virtues of summer in Santo Domingo (that extend to everyone but the poor and the Haitian), and imagines that Oscar thinks he will find true love with an Island girl.
While Oscar goes on the vacation looking for a change, and has even managed to make positive steps towards controlling his own life by managing his weight, Yunior remains completely focused on Oscar’s romantic exploits. When describing the virtues of the Dominican summer, Yunior is also sure to point out that the DR remains a classist and racist society by excluding those of lower economic status or darker skin from the annual celebration.
The Condensed Notebook of a Return to a Nativeland. Oscar’s mother gets dressed up for the plane ride back to the DR and acts like royalty throughout the flight. Oscar falls asleep, only waking up in confusion when everyone starts to clap as the airplane touches ground. Santo Domingo has been arising anew from the ashes of Trujillo’s Era, and La Inca has done very well with her bakeries, and has decided to move to a nicer neighborhood called Mirador Norte. La Inca, showing her age though she is as fit as ever, welcomes Oscar home with a kiss and cries when she sees Beli home again at last. Oscar adjusts to the DR again, especially the abundance of beautiful women.
When returning to the DR, Beli remembers that her family was once elite, and she begins to dress the part. Yet while the whole plane claps upon arrival to the island, Oscar barely even notices that the plane lands. Oscar doesn’t understand why everyone is so excited to return the the DR, because he has never felt truly at home here and is constantly reminded that he is not conventionally Dominican.
Evidence of a Brother’s Past. Lola takes picture after picture of Oscar, all over the island. He finally looks happy, if confused, and he doesn’t look fat.
The pictures of Oscar on this trip to the DR show that he does actually fit in in this environment, even if he doesn’t always feel like it.
Oscar Goes Native. The first week, Oscar has a lot of catching up to do – with his family as well as re-acclimating to Dominican culture and the shock of poverty everywhere. In the midst of all that, Oscar decides to extend his stay on the island rather than go back to Paterson when Lola leaves. He soon has second thoughts about this because he feels so un-Dominican, but he keeps his mind off it with his writing. Then Oscar meets a puta (prostitute) named Ybón Pimentel, and says that she is the start of his real life.
As Yunior catalogues the number of things that stand out to Oscar on the island, he lists poverty multiple times, emphasizing how distressed Oscar is to notice the contrast in the quality of life between the island and the states. He copes with this change, as always, by writing out his thoughts. Then a girl arrives and offers yet another “start” to the story of Oscar Wao, as Yunior continually edits Oscar’s story.
La Beba (Babygirl). Ybón, a gorgeously golden-skinned middle-aged woman, lives two houses over from La Inca, and has just returned from working in Europe. Ybón asks Oscar what he’s reading, and says she recognizes him from La Inca’s old pictures. Oscar finds her incredibly worldly and attractive, and nearly dies when she invites him in to her house. She pours them drinks and talks to him for hours about her life. Oscar thinks she is fascinating, if eccentric, and falls hard for her. Beli and La Inca are furious at Ybón’s profession, but Oscar argues that there is more to her and her family than prostitution. La Inca and Beli try to forbid him from seeing her, but he refuses to listen.
Ybón’s golden skin is reminiscent of the golden eyes of the mongoose, but Ybón is not actually a symbol of zafa herself. Díaz resists the “color coding” present in many fantasy novels and gives his heroes dark skin. Though the Dominican culture (as portrayed by Yunior) is preoccupied with sex, prostitution is still frowned upon in polite society. Oscar rejects this social convention and sees Ybón as a person rather than just her profession.
Oscar decides, for once in his life, not to overwhelm Ybón with the strength of his crush. It drives him crazy thinking of Ybón all day, but he waits till one in the afternoon of the next day to see her again. When Oscar gets to her house, there is a red jeep there with national police plates. Oscar runs away, ashamed that he didn’t realize there were other men in Ybón’s life, but comes back the day after anyway. Ybón welcomes him in.
It seems as though Oscar is finally loving selflessly. He gives Ybón the chance to decide for herself if she wants to see him again, a choice he has not given any of his former crushes. Unlike his jealousy over Jenni’s boyfriend, Oscar allows Ybón to have other relationships in her life. The jeep with national police plates means that one of Ybón’s clients is a member of the Dominican police force, a sure sign of bad things to come for Oscar.
A Note from Your Author. Yunior breaks in to address the fact that Ybón is not the stereotypical underage, drug-addicted prostitute. Yunior says he could have replaced Ybón with the quintessential Caribbean puta, but that choice would have destroyed the integrity of a “true” account of Oscar Wao’s life. He reminds us that it is our job to decide if any of this is real.
Yunior highlights his authorial privilege in the novel, but at least pretends that he is writing a totally true account even though he has explicitly admitted at other points in the book that he has changed details. Significantly, Yunior only professes to write a true account of “Oscar Wao,” the nickname he gave to Oscar de León. It is possible that Yunior has written all of this about a character loosely based on his college roommate Oscar de León, but it is impossible to know for sure.
The Girl from Sabana Iglesia (Church.) Ybón looks young, even though she is 36. She complains about the little imperfections in her body, and how hard she has to work for the body she had for free at 16. Oscar thinks she is just as beautiful now, and tells her so. Soon, Oscar stops writing and spends all his time at Ybón’s house, even when he knows she’ll be working. La Inca is still angry, but one of Oscar’s uncles is ecstatic that Oscar is finally a real Dominican man.
Though Ybón is beautiful, like the majority of the women in this novel, she focuses on the imperfections in her appearance, as Díaz comments on the unrealistic expectations set for Dominican women. Highlighting the difference in expectations between the genders, La Inca considers prostitution the worst of all possible life choices for a Dominican woman, while Oscar’s uncle sees visiting a prostitute as nothing more than the right of every Dominican man.
Ybón tells Oscar everything that has happened to her in her life, and about some of her clients (who she calls boyfriends), even though it makes Oscar uncomfortable. In turn, Oscar tells Ybón of the few life experiences he has had, including the time he attempted suicide. Ybón pours them both a drink and toasts, “To Life!” Oscar is with Ybón often enough to see her on her bad days as well. Oscar cajoles Ybón into getting out of bed, and drives her home when she inevitably drinks too much at dinner. Though Oscar doesn’t actually know his way around the island, he calls his friend Clives, a taxi-driver, to lead him home.
Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, Oscar and Ybón do not censor themselves when they talk about their pasts, giving them the chance to build a solid relationship based on mutual acceptance and trust. This relationship does not fix all of their problems, however, as both Ybón and Oscar have emotional baggage that they need to work through on their own, as seen in Ybón’s bad days. Oscar’s gaps in his knowledge of his family’s past show in his inability to navigate the island.
La Inca Speaks. La Inca gets one small paragraph of narration, to say that Oscar did not meet Ybón outside her house. He met her in a cabaret.
La Inca uses her one moment of authorship in the novel to say that Oscar and Ybón’s relationship was actually tied to Ybón’s profession as a prostitute.
Ybón, As Recorded by Oscar. Ybón says that she never wanted to come back to Santo Domingo, but that she ran out of money and options. Though she doesn’t like being back in the DR after seeing more of the world, she knows that she can get used to anything.
La Inca and Ybón both speak in their own voices very briefly, as Yunior emphasizes how truth can change depending on the person. Ybón shares how she is actually much happier being a prostitute anywhere but the DR. Both La Inca and Ybón contradict how Yunior has previously described Ybón’s circumstances.
What Never Changes. Yunior breaks in to ask whether, in all the talking, Oscar ever had a chance to be physically intimate with Ybón. Yunior says that nothing sexual happens that summer, but Oscar remains hopeful that if he comes back at Thanksgiving and Christmas Ybón will let her guard down. Oscar realizes that he is one of Ybón’s few real friends, in keeping with Ybón’s motto of “travel light,” a theory that she extends to friends as well as furniture. Oscar knows that Ybón is having sex with other men, but he decides not to care, so that he does not repeat the mistakes he made with Ana Obregón.
As he did when Oscar was dating Ana, Yunior ignores the emotional closeness that the couple is building in favor of physical expressions of love. Like before, Oscar is content to wait until his romantic partner initiates physical intimacy, though it is unclear whether Oscar does this out of respect or out of lack of confidence. Ybón’s motto “travel light” hints that she is not looking for a committed relationship with Oscar, or anyone else, so that she can always leave if necessary.
Oscar at the Rubicon. As August begins, Ybón starts to talk about her boyfriend the Capitán. Oscar insists that the Capitán won’t be jealous of him, but Ybón isn’t so sure. Oscar knows that he is getting too lovesick for Ybón, but he doesn’t know how to stop loving her. He dreams of Ybón’s naked body and knows that it is too late to try to convince himself not to love her.
The Rubicon is a famous river that Julius Caesar crossed in 49 BC, starting the Roman Civil War. Oscar is similarly poised on a potentially risky course of action as he continues to see Ybón, despite the danger of her militaristic boyfriend.
Last Chance. Two days later, Oscar’s uncle shows Oscar bullet holes on the side of their house. La Inca and Beli try to get Oscar to heed the warning, and Oscar feels a strange feeling of premonition. But Oscar ignores all of this and heads over to Ybón’s house anyway.
Oscar’s last chance to give up on Ybón involves a premonition similar to the feeling that Lola had before she found out that Beli had cancer. This suggests that Oscar’s next discoveries will also be bad news, but Oscar chooses not to pay attention to this warning.
Oscar Gets Beat. In mid-August, Oscar meets the Capitán and gets his first kiss. Yunior then steps back to explain how this all happened. Oscar follows Clives’ taxi home from dinner, with Ybón passed out in the front seat, when he is pulled over by the cops. As the cops ask Oscar to get out of the car, Ybón wakes up, leans over, and kisses Oscar. Yunior admits that he has forgotten his own first kiss, but that Oscar never would. Unfortunately, the Capitán is standing behind the police officers and witnesses everything. They yank Oscar out of the car, and Ybón simply passes out in the passenger seat again.
Yunior yet again gives away the most important events before he describes how those events actually happened, which heightens the tension as we know that Oscar is headed for both a kiss and a beating, but we don’t know which will happen first. Oddly, Ybón initiates the kiss, yet seems to have no agency in the moment. Yunior does not even attempt to explain why Ybón kissed Oscar, or whether she knew that a kiss would have such disastrous consequences.
The Capitán, a career military man in his 40s, was too young to help during Trujillo’s regime, but found plenty of work during the Balaguer years and soon rose to the top of the ranks. He regards Oscar coolly, and a terrified Oscar blurts out that he is an American citizen. The Capitán just laughs and says that he is, too. Oscar insists that he didn’t do anything wrong, and that Ybón had said that she and the Capitán were broken up. The Capitán grabs Oscar by the throat, and Yunior says that a more handsome man would have been shot on the spot. Instead, the Capitán takes pity and simply beats Oscar and hands him over to the two police officers. The Capitán then drives off with Ybón, pulling her by the hair.
The Capitán, though not actually connected to Trujillo, is as close as he can get in this new modern era of the Dominican Republic. Even after Trujillo’s death, the dictator’s culture of violence still manages to harm the Cabral family line, just as fukú causes harm to the descendants of people who were cursed. For once, Oscar’s “undesirable” appearance saves him, as the capitán seems to think that an ugly man is less of a threat to Ybón’s affections.
The two police officers, whom Yunior calls Solomon Grundy and Gorilla Grod, start to drive Oscar to the cane fields. They chit chat while Oscar frantically tries to think of a way to escape in the back seat. He looks out the window and thinks he sees a man with no face. The police officers walk Oscar into the cane field and Oscar has an intense feeling of déjà vu, but is brought back to reality as the police officers begin to beat him with the butts of their pistols. Yunior calls it the “beatdown to end all beatdowns,” and says he is uncertain whether the police officers were trying to scare Oscar or kill him. The officers stop when he is just shy of death, and Oscar falls unconscious.
Solomon Grundy and Gorilla Grodd are two gorilla-esque supervillains in the DC comic universe, giving both Yunior and Oscar another chance to compare their own lives to the comic books they read. Like Beli before him, Oscar sees the symbol of fukú on his way to the cane field, and feels déjà vu because it is the exact same cane field where Beli was beaten by Trujillo’s sister’s thugs. Family history continues to repeat itself.
Clives to the Rescue. Clives the taxi driver had the bravery and the kindness to follow the police officers and find Oscar after the police officers were done with him. A singing voice leads Clives to Oscar’s unconscious body, and Clives convinces some Haitian workers from a nearby batey (sugar worker town) to help him carry Oscar out of the cane field.
The singing voice presumably belongs to the mongoose, though Yunior never attempts to explain its origin. As with the biblical story of the good Samaritan, where a Samaritan helps an injured man despite the fact that Samaritans were treated with contempt and hatred, the Haitian workers help Oscar even though many Dominicans hate Haitians.
Close Encounters of the Caribbean Kind. Oscar remembers dreaming about the Mongoose while he was unconscious. The Mongoose asks Oscar if he wants less or more. Thinking of his family, and his own optimistic young self, Oscar says he wants more. The Mongoose then speaks three words that are blanked out of the text.
With the title “Close encounters of the Caribbean Kind”, Yunior references the sci-fi classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” but includes the supernatural mongoose unique to islands rather than the aliens of the original movie. The mongoose’s words are blanked out, just like other things are censored in the text, but this censorship is a positive quality here, one that creates endless opportunity for the reader to imagine their own words.
Dead or Alive. The doctors catalogue Oscar’s injuries and La Inca and Beli begin to pray. Each refuses to acknowledge the similarity to Beli’s past experience.
Although the mongoose speaks to Oscar, there is no guarantee that Oscar will live or that he will find happiness. Beli was never the same after her own beating.
Briefing for a Descent Into Hell. Oscar lays unconscious for three days, remembering nothing but an “Aslan-like figure with golden eyes” and a man wearing a mask holding a blank book.
Aslan, the lion that represents God in the series The Chronicles of Narnia, has the same golden eyes of the mongoose, but does not have the silky black fur that marks the mongoose as a distinctly Dominican symbol. The man in a mask is not quite a man with no face, and it’s unclear whether the blank book is a good thing or a bad thing.
Alive. As soon as Oscar is able to travel, Beli arranges a plane flight home to Paterson. Oscar insists that he wants to stay to be with Ybón. He resists all attempts to move him, despite the extra pain it causes his recovering body, and actually appreciates the beating for showing him that things really were serious between him and Ybón. He also realizes that the family curse might actually be real.
Oscar’s beating significantly changes his worldview, clarifying how important Ybón is to him and cementing the perceived reality of the curse in his life.
Oscar tries to get himself to Ybón’s house, but sees that her car isn’t there. Finally, three days after the beating, Ybón comes to visit Oscar. Beli calls Ybón a puta, but Ybón ignores Beli and goes to Oscar. She is wearing white, and has two black eyes courtesy of the Capitán. Ybón tells Oscar that they can never see each other again, and that she and the Capitán (Yunior blurs out his real name here) are getting married. Oscar finally agrees to go home to the United States.
Ybón’s white dress emphasizes her purity, even if Beli makes sure to acknowledge that Ybón is not actually pure. Even though the Capitán clearly abuses Ybón, it would be more dangerous for her to try to leave him. Yunior refuses to make the Capitán sympathetic in any way, refusing to even give him a personal name.
Lola meets Beli and Oscar at the airport, crying when she sees the damage all over Oscar’s face. She tells Yunior what happened, and Yunior calls Oscar. Oscar ignores Yunior’s questions about the beating, too full of the news that he, Oscar, has kissed a girl. When Yunior goes to visit Oscar, Oscar starts to tell Yunior about the fukú.
Lola struggles with seeing damage on Oscar’s face that she can do nothing to fix, as she still wants to sacrifice everything for her loved ones. Oscar does what Yunior has done throughout the book, prioritizing romantic developments over other important events. Though Oscar has told Yunior about the curse before, this is the first real evidence that may get Yunior to believe in fukú.
Some Advice. Yunior extends Ybón’s advice to the whole world. Travel light.
“Travel light” now seems to warn against making too many attachments, because it is impossible to know how much time anyone has.
Paterson, Again. Oscar returns home and heals, but can’t let go of his love for Ybón. He dreams of his family getting beaten in the cane field in his place, but he runs away instead of saving them. Oscar tries to watch his old favorite Japanese movies, and rereads his beloved The Lord of the Rings again, but he has to stop when he reaches the description of Orcs as “black men like half-trolls.” Six weeks after his beating, Oscar dreams of the cane field again. This time he doesn’t run away, but stays and listens to the sounds of the violence and the pain.
Like his grandfather Abelard, Oscar worries that he will be a coward, unable to save his family when it matters most. Oscar desperately wants to see himself as a hero, but does not find many examples of dark skinned heroes in the books that he reads – hating the description of Orcs so much that he has to stop reading what used to be his favorite fantasy series. When Oscar stays to listen to the sounds of pain, Díaz suggests that sometimes bearing witness to pain is just as brave as acting to prevent pain.