The book of short stories, Drown, by Junot Diaz, loosely follows the theme of coming of age as a young man in the Dominican Republic or as a Dominican who has emigrated to the United States. The language used to tell these stories is rich with authenticity, sprinkled with cultural slang and Spanish. Diaz does not awkwardly represent the Dominican way of speaking, using missing letters or misspelled words, as some authors do in an attempt to recreate the sounds of the language. Instead, he casually slips in words to flavor the dialogue, like in “Aguantando,” where the “Abuelo” tells his grandson, “So cry all you want, malcriado.” Diaz writes in a way that allows the mind to hear the Dominican accent without much prodding from the writing itself.
There is little description used throughout the book, and unless someone has unique characteristics, such as the “thick veined slab of his tongue through a hole in his cheek,” used to describe a boy disfigured at a young age from the story “Ysrael,” characters are not described much, if at all. We can stereotypically assume that the characters have dark hair and eyes and tanned skin because they are from the Dominican, but beyond that, we know little of them in most cases. We are also left to our own imaginations when it comes to location, except in a few cases. Diaz highlights the extreme poverty of the “unwashed children pointing sullenly at his new shoes, the familias slouching in hovels” in “Negocios,” but we’re still left to picture what the homes or shacks might look like and what the dirty children are wearing.
There are many instances of sad and dysfunctional relationships in this collection. In “Aguantando,” the children and mother are waiting for the father to return. Though the narrator of that story “lived without a father for the first nine years of [his] life,” they still wait for the man to show up and take them to the United States to live a better life. The couple in “Aurora” has fights where, “She breaks everything I own, yells at me like it might change something, tries to slam doors on my fingers” and in the next sentence, “she wants me to promise her a love that’s never been seen anywhere.” It seems that in these vivid and brutal relationships, Diaz is showing us that even if someone is hurting us, physically or otherwise, there is still such a deep hunger within the soul to find happiness and prosperity that people can and will overlook terrible things done to them in order to have a chance to reach that dream of a better life.
These stories do not end with a warm and fuzzy, nicely packaged resolution. I get the sense that Diaz is more concerned with giving his readers a picture of true human nature rather than a happy ending. In the story, “Edison, New Jersey,” the narrator is a pool table deliveryman who encounters an unhappy housekeeper. He takes a risk and helps her leave the life in which she feels trapped. Days later, he calls the house she has escaped from, and she answers the phone. Has the woman decided she has no other choice but to remain in the life she wants to be rid of? Or is it just human nature to return to the known and abandon the unknown out of comfort and again, the chance to earn more money and have a better life? The story “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” takes this human nature aspect to a formulaic level and gives explicit instructions on methods that should be taken with girls depending on where they are from and what race they are. Diaz displays several stereotypical characters and gives us a glimpse into the reasons they do what they do.
Perhaps the readers of this book can gain a better understanding of people in difficult situations like those in the stories of Drown, and perhaps through this understanding they will gain compassion. It may be that a world with greater compassion brings more peace and happiness than the prosperity that the characters in this book are striving for.
My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it