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To the writer who cannot get work published or reviewed in the first place, it may seem cruel to point out that for those writers fortunate enough to get published and reviewed regularly the most insidious difficulty to be faced is inflated reviews, or what is known in the trade as blurbs, as in the drooling praise that ends up on the back of a book jacket. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning, because blurbs are everywhere. It’s as if Madison Avenue’s finest blew off their Burger King and Nike accounts to concoct obscenely fawning ejaculations and zippy catch phrases for new authors. The problem for the writer is one of disorientation: She is disoriented from a realistic assessment of her work. This cuts both ways—she is removed from legitimate praise on the one hand and discerning criticism on the other. Along comes a fine writer like Junot Diaz, and you see the problem clearly. His first collection is promising and worthy of accolades, but to read Diaz’s blurbs is to get the idea that he has, in one swift collection of 10 stories, leapfrogged all competitors living and dead. Is the collection that good? Well, how to put it? No.
But what Diaz has accomplished—at 27 years of age—is considerable. His 10 well-crafted stories are notable for a variety of reasons, chief among them his ability to bring the habits, passions, and thoughts of those who live in the Dominican Republic, or those who once lived there but have moved to the United States, into sharp and lively perspective. He grants dignity to his characters without engaging in ethnic hagiography. Equipped with a sense of loyalty to the Dominican that does not result in feverish tirades against the United States, Diaz is ultimately more concerned about getting his characters right than anything else.
The result is stories of enduring power, not thinly veiled apologias for this or that political or cultural philosophy. But that is not to suggest that Diaz is without a solid point of view. “I never wanted to be away from the family. Intuitively, I knew how easily distances could harden and become permanent,” says the narrator of “Aguantando.” Diaz’s work seems finely tuned to the importance of home, culturally and geographically. Most of his characters are happy to arrive in the United States because it increases their financial prospects, but these stories are not a new riff on the old Horatio Alger theme. They are informed by homesickness, something money cannot cure. That is not to say life in the States is dismal for Diaz’s Dominicans. In “Fiesta, 1980,” the narrator sets a wonderful scene:
Mami’s youngest sister—my tia Yrma—finally made it to the United States that year. She and tio Miguel got themselves an apartment in the Bronx, off the Grand Concourse and everybody decided that we should have a party. Actually, my pops decided, but everybody—meaning Mami, tia Yrma, tio Miguel and their neighbors—thought it a dope idea. On the afternoon of the party Papi came back from work around six. Right on time. We were all dressed by then, which was a smart move on our part. If Papi had walked in and caught us lounging around in our underwear, he would have kicked our asses something serious.
Now, that paragraph has a lot going for it. To begin with, Diaz’s unforced use of Spanish—which is maintained throughout the collection and is never overdone—nicely energizes the surrounding prose. For another, Diaz must surely know that the average suburban American, of whatever class, faith, or creed, will come upon such a scenario with astonishment. Here a young man casually describes preparations for a party that will be attended by aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews—lots of them—as if it were just another day in the neighborhood, which of course it is if you happen to be Dominican. In the hands of a lesser writer, such an advantage might be pressed and sensationalized, but Diaz goes only as far as his story requires. And while he is very good with stories about domestic quarrels, celebrations, and everyday frustrations, he also displays a talent for revealing the macabre side of life. In “Ysrael”—set in the Dominican Republic—the narrator and his brother hunt down a boy whose face has been disfigured and unmask him in a flurry of violence.
In “Aurora,” a small-time drug dealer describes his existence in a state of near disbelief, as if he had been intended for a better life but didn’t get it. He is not so much angry as mystified by the life he lives and the reprehensible things he does. This is especially true when he observes his relationship with his sometime lover Aurora:
I can’t help myself with her and being blunted makes it worse. She has her hands on my shoulder blades and the way she pulls on them I think maybe she’s trying to open me.
Go easy, she says.
We all do shit like this, stuff that’s no good for you. You do it and then there’s no feeling positive about it afterwards. When Cut puts his salsa on the next morning, I wake up, alone, the blood doing jumping jacks in my head. I see that she’s searched my pockets, left them hanging out of my pants like tongues.
The one time Diaz gets didactic, it’s part of the punch line. “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” is Miss Manners for housing-project dating. “Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator,” Diaz reminds us. “Hide the pictures of yourself with an Afro,” he advises. And watch out for those idealistic halfies:
A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement, will say, Back then people thought it 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 you hamburger and say, It must have been hard.
Diaz’s dead-on humor is evident in almost every story, including those stories that are on the whole very sad. Brooding over his prose is a refined sensibility that refuses to wander even from the ugliness, that refuses to set off for new lands; this is due to Diaz’s understanding of the importance of home and family. The most haunting moments in his work are not disfigured children being stripped of cover, or drug dealers sizing up their sour lives, or keen observations about class and about poverty—they are about blood ties, sometimes honored, sometimes abandoned. At the conclusion of “Aguantando,” the narrator imagines his father—who long ago went to the United States with the promise that he would return to bring his family back over with him—coming home: “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.”
Diaz is a writer who knows much more than how to describe a sense of loss—he knows exactly what has been lost and why we cannot do without it.