Junot Díaz’s acclaimed novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been high on my to-read list for a while, but in the meantime I’ve been enjoying his short-story collection Drown, which was published more than a decade earlier. These are spare, slice-of-life stories told in the voice of a young boy named Yunior, and peopled by his family and friends who live in squalid neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic (and later, as immigrants, in New Jersey). Impoverished, dysfunctional families are the norm in this community, as is drug use and sexual promiscuity among 12-year-olds. Youngsters live for the moment, aware at all times that there probably isn’t much to look ahead to: at one point someone likens Yunior and his friends to space shuttles, the majority of which will burn out. (Given that these stories are partly autobiographical, with Yunior a stand-in for the author, it’s safe to say that Díaz himself – now a Pulitzer Prize winner – is one of the shuttles that made it into orbit. More about him here.)
These are interlinked tales, told non-chronologically. In the opening story “Ysrael”, nine-year-old Yunior joins his elder brother Rafa in teasing a boy whose face was torn by a pig when he was an infant. As a young man in “Edison, New Jersey”, Yunior delivers pool tables to people who live in houses with 20-30 rooms, and occasionally filches razor blades and cookies from the premises. “Aguantando” (which means to endure or wait in Spanish) is about the continual absence of his father from his life, a theme that is also touched on in the beautifully paced “Fiesta, 1980”, with its description of the narrator’s struggle with car-sickness in his dad’s Volkswagen van. And the humorous “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” is exactly what the title suggests.
The prose throughout Drown is very informal – with lots of street slang and cuss words like pendejo (“a pussy or a punk”) and come mierda (“a shit-eater”) – but it has a rigour, a rhythmic intensity of its own. It’s particularly effective when the hardened, tough-boy tone of the narrative briefly yields to something more vulnerable. In one of the finest stories, “Boyfriend”, Yunior overhears the weeping of a young woman – dumped by her boyfriend – in the apartment below his and reflects, “It would have broken my heart if it hadn’t been so damn familiar. I guess I’d gotten numb to that sort of thing. I had heart-leather like walruses got blubber.” But we can tell that this is a façade built by someone who’s had to grow up much too fast; a narrator who can artlessly exclaim “Beautiful!” when he sees a mother duck and her three ducklings float downstream “like they’re on the same string”.
The quieter, more tender passages in these stories – such as Yunior recalling a transient moment with his girlfriend Aurora, when “we seemed like we were normal folks. Like maybe everything was better” – are all the more precious for being situated in a larger narrative that’s bleak. Which is not to say that Drown is a depressing book – writing of this quality simply can’t be, no matter how dark the subject matter.
P.S. there’s a glossary for the Spanish words at the end. I kept referring to it, but it isn’t imperative for most of the words: you get the general sense without knowing the exact meanings. However, my respect for the Spanish has been increased by the discovery that they have a single word (fulano) for “Tom, Dick and Harry all balled into one”.