This semester I’m lucky enough to be taking a Caribbean literature course, and it’s introducing me to some absolutely wonderful new (and semi-new but thankfully revived) authors and works. Junot Diaz is one of those authors who I’ve had interactions with before (I read The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao a while ago, but it was during my blogging dark days so it never did get reviewed) but I have to say that I liked his first novel, Drown, even more.
Drown is a series of interconnected short stories that follow the life of young Yunior, his brother Rafa, and their mother and father as the family moves from the Dominican Republic to the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York, a largely Dominican/Caribbean neighborhood. As the stories progress, Diaz is able to advance Yunior’s voice along with his age, a narrative skill I’ve seen used hundreds of times, but never with the dexterity that Diaz brings to the overall story. Take this example, the beginning of the first story (“Ysrael”):
I was nine that summer, but my brother was twelve, and he was the one who wanted to see Ysrael, who looked out towards Barbacoa and said, We should pay that kid a visit.
Versus the beginning of the second story (“Fiesta, 1980”):
everybody decided we should have a party. Actually, my pops decided, but everybody – meaning Mami, tia Yrma, tio Miguel and their neighbors – thought it was a dope idea.
In the 21 pages between the beginning of “Ysrael” and “Fiesta”, Diaz manages to age Yunior in a way that is not only visibly progressive across the page, but also realistically adapted to the character at hand. Although the narrative voice continues to change as chapters progress, and there are some who believe that perhaps Diaz is playing with multiple narrators rather than just Yunior, I believe that looking at the deeper traits of the character indicates that it’s the same character in different points of life, throughout the novel.
Yunior is a sensitive boy. He’s beaten by his father, growing up, for getting car sick (“Fiesta, 1980”). His brother is both violent and cruel (“Ysrael”). His mother is poor, broken, and tired, having been dragged around her entire life by a man who may love her but certainly isn’t faithful to her (“Aguantando”). It’s a hard life for Yunior to live, and he doesn’t escape unscathed. He becomes a drug dealer, violent towards women (“Aurora”) as well as homophobically unsure in his sexuality (“Drown”) (just to clarify, when I say homophobically unsure, I mean that Yunior has two – he makes sure the reader knows its ONLY two – sexual interactions with another male friend and while he reacts homophobically, there is also a part of him that begins to questions aspects of his sexuality previously left alone). However, even with all of the negative cultural influences that seem to pervade Yunior’s life, he is still a character with a certain amount of innocence in his heart, who has an inherent predilection for kindness and tolerance rather than hate or dismissal. He truly loves people, getting to know them and doing what he cane for them. And he love his mother. Which is always nice to see.
It’s not often that books assigned for class end up being wonderful reads that I’m glad I was assigned. Even attaching the word “assigned” to a book can often make even the most wonderful book on the planet pretty horrible-ish. But this was a noteable exception. If you’ve got any interest in reading about the blending between Latin American/Caribbean and American cultures, the progression of character development, and/or family dynamics that operate in a less than dynamic family, Drown is most likely right up your alley. Then again, I have to say that, if you like books, Drown might also be right up your alley. This was another foray in to short stories/interconnected shorter narratives and I’ve got to say – the more I get in to them, the more I’m liking it! Happy reading!