The Sauron of Santo Domingo

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Can pop culture capture transcendence?

It’s not often that you can pinpoint the exact month and year of a transient moment of ecstatic, even transcendent emotion in your life. In my experience, such feelings tend to be vagrant and never leave much trace, like instances of joy when you step outside and catch a glimpse of a particular slant of sunlight against a tree. The emotion arrives and vanishes as quickly as the phenomenon that spawns it.

In the case of pop culture, however, a force that can be as evanescent and startling as nature in its quick passage through our lives, we have a record. If we heard a particular song on a specific day at a swimming pool in West Texas, and we have a rough sense of its origins, we can find out exactly when it was released. The same goes for movies, TV shows and, in my case, comic books.

It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that one of my most shattering and yet fleeting encounters with a sense of divine presence occurred when I reached the final panel of Marvel Comics Tomb of Dracula # 52. I’ve often asked myself since what could have been so overwhelming that I went to my parents with tears in my eyes and tried to get them to see what I’d witnessed in the story.

I look back now and realize that, to their eyes, the comic must have looked like standard-issue pulp. The above issue, number 53, was the next in the series, but you get the idea. The last three or four pages of 52 depicted a knock-down, drag-out fight between Count Dracula and a gold-skinned, silver-eyed superhero who had the mysterious flat affect of the Silver Surfer, but none of the charisma. Throughout the fight, Dracula keeps asking the golden warrior in the white fight suit who he serves. Does he work for Satan? Is he in league with the vampire hunter Blade or Rachel Van Helsing?

None of the above, it turned out. Dracula delivers the superhero a mortal wound, and as the vampire hovers over his dying foe, he demands a final answer. Who does he serve? Dracula is certain that the ultimate paymaster must be Satan, but his enemy surprises him and says something like, ‘There is another side that fights in this ceaseless war between good and evil,” before expiring.

It is the only time that I can remember an explicit reference to god in all my long years of Marvel Comics obsession. The instance wasn’t preachy or strident or dogmatic. It was the final utterance of a forgettable character on the last page of a fairly down market horror comic. Yet it had undeniable power for a 13-year-old boy. It felt momentous.

Looking back, I detect the hand of a seriously Catholic comic book writer, sneaking a message about the divine into an unobtrusive, narratively justified plot twist. But that’s not the key to my reaction. No, my response hinges on a far less exalted reality.

Have you guessed yet? I was an ueber-geek. My encounter with the Lord of Hosts in Tomb of Dracula #52 was the mere tip of the iceberg. I didn’t quite speak or write Tolkien’s elvish, like the title character in the luminous Junot Diaz novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but I knew the appendices of the trilogy by heart and read them as closely as the central fiction, looking closely for lost pieces of he incomplete history of the War of the Ring and the end of the Third Age.

If I didn’t go as far or fall as deep as the Oscar Wao of Junot Diaz into the sweet molasses morass of sci-fi and fantasy, it may be because my family, unlike that of the character, hadn’t survived the closest thing to a reign of Sauron in the western hemisphere, the three-decade dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Three decades!

Here’s a footnote from the novel, tied to the first mention of Trujillo, that makes clear why that is an astonishing, almost unbearable thought:

For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR’s political, cultural, social, and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master. At first glance, he was just your prototypical Latin American caudillo, but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured, or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.

Reading this novel, including its marvelous footnotes, I couldn’t help being reminded of a seldom-mentioned aspect of Tolkien’s trilogy. It may be the ultimate statement in twee geek-mongering, but it also happens to be the work of a soldier who fought on the British side in World War I and wrote his trilogy in the shadow of World War II. In other words, he was no stranger to genuine political and social horror, and that’s one reason why Diaz is able to so skillfully wrap an Anglo-Saxon and Celtic fantasy into a godawful Dominican reality.

Last spring, at a conference on the imagination at the Institute for Strategic Evangelism at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois, speakers talked a lot about Tolkien, but they addressed his legacy in terms of its theological and imaginative legacy. Nobody, but nobody, including myself, stood up to talk about the ways that the trilogy’s rootedness in a distinct and horrifying earthly reality gives Lord of the Rings much of its power. The Diaz novel is, among many other things, a testament to precisely this facet of the work.

The other anchor of this brilliantly sustained fiction is, as it happens, Catholicism. It can’t be an accident that Oscar Wao, the son of Carribbean Catholics, however alienated from their tradition, falls madly, deeply and truly for the most popular and enduring of modern Catholic sagas. His native culture cannot be imagined without heaven above and hell below and a middle world fraught with angels and demons. In Diaz, a curse called a fuku lies upon the people of the Dominican Republic, including Oscar’s family, and this curse is explicitly compared to Tolkien’s curse of the One Ring, which is itself inseparable from the notion of Original Sin.

I don’t mean to make the more recent novel sound like a theological treatise. Diaz is playing in glee, fury and sexual abandon with the concept of fate and divine destiny to examine questions of freedom and slavery, but he is also having a hellaciously good time creating his own language of diaspora Dominican, North American English and international nerdhood. Among his other accomplishments? He has finally sexed up the world of the elves and hobbits. I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that the deepest flaw of the trilogy is its lack of mad girls—specifically mad Dominican girls.

The character of Oscar knows this better than anyone. He lives for the day when he can find his own personal Arwen Evenstar, but the path to that love is laced with island history, and he can no more skip around the realities of his country’s past than he can skip to the last page of Return of the King to see what happens. This is all the more frustrating because Oscar is a member of the Dominican diaspora, child of the family forced to leave the island because of the madness of Trujillo. As an emigrant to the United States, which notoriously backed that dictatorship, he already dwells in an ethereal world between worlds.

In truth, he is betrayed by almost everyone, including the author of Lord of the Rings. At the end of Oscar Wao comes a  heartbreaking and yet quiet account of the character’s first overwhelming reading of  the trilogy: “He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.”

Pain lies everywhere, unexpected deposits of sorrow in pop. Diaz deploys Marvel Comics as well as Tolkien in his geek’s pantheon, and he comes back time and again to the character of the Watcher from the Fantastic Four series. The Watcher has a huge head and almost no personality, another of these odd affectless creatures on the margins of the stories, yet who at the same time give the Marvel Universe so much of its fascination. The Watcher is essentially a novelist of the cosmos, constantly showing up to offer gnomic wisdom on the meaning of cool battles with the likes of Galactus.

He is unfailingly the bearer of bad news, and he never acts to change the course of outcomes. That is the ley to his pathos. He knows everything and can do almost nothing.

Diaz is hipper than the Watcher, and Trujillo makes Galactus look like a cactus, but the point is driven home with ferocious force. Our most ridiculous and transient fantasies aren’t merely avenues of escape. They are portals of rescue, too, like this novel itself, a masterpiece of sword, salsa and sorcery. Rescue, by the way, isn’t a  well-protected sanctuary. In this novel, it is the clear-eyed acknowledgment of a terrible, mostly forgotten history.

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John Marks is a novelist, journalist, former 60 Minutes producer, and friend of rednoW.  His first novel, The Wall, was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1998. His second, War Torn, made Publishers Weekly’s Best of 2003. His third novel, Fangland, appeared in January 2007 and has been optioned for a feature film by Hilary Swank. John’s first work of non-fiction, Reasons to Believe, a portrait of American Christianity, was published in February 2008. For more on John and his work (including his latest documentary project), visit John’s Blog at www.purplestateofmind.com.