Junot Diaz’s Drown is a short collection of short stories, but it is well worth your time. Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is an American writer with very strong ties to the Dominican Republic. This comes through throughout Drown as the characters are almost all Dominican and move about in the Dominican immigrant community. Diaz’s writing is almost informal and casual but this belies the emotional complexity that underpins each story as his characters struggle through living in the United States as a FOB (Fresh off the boat), homesickness, language issues, and poverty. There is Spanish sprinkled liberally on every page but Diaz includes a short glossary at the back (and what isn’t covered by this makes sense contextually).
Drown was Diaz’s first publication and it is very well put together. Where some short story collections feel like a disparate group of pieces, Drown has not only thematic unity but also an over-arching unity. The central character, Yunior, is the younger of two brothers whose father immigrated to the US many years earlier and only now brings over his (estranged) family. He had been cheating on his wife before, had to get married to get citizenship in order to bring his family over, and once they arrive cheats with another woman. So, Papi is a bad guy. However, the final story in the book, “Negocios” (Spanish for businesses), tells Papi’s side of the story and Diaz pulls out all the stops to make readers empathize with the father. This doesn’t make him a good guy, but it does give him a more depth and a greater sense of humanity.
I should also warn you that Drown is rough around the edges. Several stories deal with violence, drug dealing and using, sexual abuse, and there is language throughout. This does not take away from Drown‘s impact but is a central part of it. Yunior lives in a violent world because poverty is everywhere, not just in the Dominican ghettoes of New York but also back in the Dominican Republic.
If I had to pick a favourite story, it would be either “Negocios” or “Edison, New Jersey.” The latter story deals with a pair of pool-table delivery men who travel into the swanky, elite neighbourhoods of New York to set up expensive tables. The dialogue between Wayne and the unnamed narrator (possibly Yunior) is quite witty and fleshes out the conflicted world of race relations between low-paid Latin American workers and the wealthy whites who purchase the tables. The heart of the story deals with the narrator’s interactions with a Dominican domestic at one of the homes. She is possibly an illegal immigrant and is caught in a much worse position than the narrator. The narrator takes her back to the Dominican neighbourhood to help her escape her problem only to nearly lose his job. I liked this story because it was emotionally compelling and dealt with the difficulties of living in a “multicultural” US. “Edison, New Jersey” shows a very different side of the American Dream, one that is probably more realistic than the high dreams that most American immigrants have when arriving in the country.
I would highly recommend Drown to any lover of short fiction.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.