America’s Beautiful Neglected
By Junot Diaz
Entering the literary fold with a short story collection seems to be a safe bet. Short stories are easily tamed; they provide manageable space to develop one’s budding talent. But for Junot Diaz, debuting with Drown in 1997, his talent had already bloomed; he arrived fully developed.
These are the most remarkable stories I have read this entire year. It’s a sweeping statement, but I’m going to stand by it. His seemingly effortless mixture of precision and audacity is staggering. This is prose that marches, paints, throws bricks through the windows of vacant houses; this is prose that won’t be taken lying down.
The twelve stories in Drown thread through various lives of people that most of us would find easy to ignore: a family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a boy whose face was chewed up by a pig, a furniture mover who’s keenly aware that his rich white clients don’t trust him, a nameless narrator who instructs us “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie.” Yet his characters, drawn with thick, earnest lines, persist in compelling us to engage in their stories.
Writing about immigrants, about the urban lower classes, about America’s beautiful neglected can all too easily become cheap and cliche. But Diaz masterfully evades all of these sappy traps; there are no starving boys who just want a puppy for Christmas in these stories. Diaz reminds us, without apology, that immigrants, that poor people are no different from all other people. They love and fight and cheat and strive and smash things up.
Diaz is never overly emotional, even when the stories seem to provide the ample space to ooze sap. He is slyly humorous; he seems to understand that the current of irony runs beneath almost every situation, particularly when one is dealing with boys.
In “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” the unnamed narrator tells us exactly how to do that: how to seduce a girl based on her race. Diaz banks on the stereotypes that a teen boy would also bank on, and exploits them cleverly. An exemplary (and hilarious) passage about how to manage dinner:
Dinner will be tense. You are not good at talking to people you don’t know. A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement, will say, Back then people thought it was a radical thing to do. It will sound like something her parents made her memorize. Your brother once heard that one and said, Man, that sounds like a whole lot of Uncle Tomming to me. Don’t repeat this.
Put down your hamburger and say, It must have been hard.
And, from the same story, what to expect from a “whitegirl”:
A whitegirl might just give it up right then. Don’t stop her. She’ll take her gum out of her mouth, stick it to the plastic sofa covers and then will move close to you. You have nice eyes, she might say.
Tell her that you love her hair, that you love her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own.
She’ll say, I like Spanish guys, and even though you’ve never been to Spain, say, I like you. You’ll sound smooth.
In one of my favorite passages in the entire collection, Yunior, a Dominican boy, imagines the day when his father will finally come return to his family. These are the last lines of the story “Aguantando”:
I would see him coming from my trees. A man with swinging hands and eyes like mine. He’d have gold on his fingers, cologne on his neck, a silk shirt, good leather shoes. The whole barrio would come out to greet him. He’d kiss Mami and Rafa and shake Abuelo’s reluctant hand and then he’d see me behind everyone else. What’s wrong with that one? he’d ask and Mami would say, He doesn’t know you. Squatting down so that his pale yellow dress socks showed, he’d trace the scars on my arms and on my head. Yunior, he’d finally say, his stubbled face in front of mine, his thumb tracing a circle on my cheek.
These stories are gorgeous and Diaz is confidently in control of every phrase, every character. Suffice it to say, I am very excited about reading his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, very soon.