With recent stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and "Best American Stories," Junot Diaz has been hyped as the next young gun of American fiction. With his bare-knuckled prose ("That's the way it is. They built these barrios out of bad luck and you got to get used to that.") and tough, grim settings, Diaz works the same emotional landscape as early Jerzy Kosinski and Thom Jones. And like Jones and Kosinski, Diaz's work mainly consists of thinly veiled autobiography.
The 10 stories in "Drown" tell of his impoverished, fatherless youth in the Dominican Republic and his struggle with immigrant life in New Jersey. Diaz has a precise eye for pain, rendering the suffering of the dispossessed with clinical accuracy. In the stories "Ysrael" and "No Face," Diaz tells of a boy whose face has been horribly disfigured by a pig and how he is tormented by the kids of the village. But Diaz also has a wry touch, as in "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie," where the teenage narrator living in the projects gives a lesson in how to get laid by any kind of girl: "Dinner will be tense... A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement... Your brother once heard that one and said, 'Man, that sounds like a whole lot of Uncle Tomming to me.' Don't repeat this."
The last story, "Negocios," points up this collection's one weakness. It is a chronicle of his father's immigration, remarriage and, finally, the rescuing of his children and first wife from their bleak life in the Dominican Republic. While the language, images and characters are well drawn, there's little sense of fiction -- little of the depth and breadth of Kosinski or Jones. These stories don't read like stories, but more like sociology or reportage, like firsthand New Yorker pieces of old. Diaz expertly captures the rage and alienation of the Dominican immigrant experience, but it will be interesting to see what he does if he turns his talent and indignation to true fiction. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The 10 tales in this intense debut collection plunge us into the emotional lives of people redefining their American identity. Narrated by adolescent Dominican males living in the struggling communities of the Dominican Republic, New York and New Jersey, these stories chronicle their outwardly cool but inwardly anguished attempts to recreate themselves in the midst of eroding family structures and their own burgeoning sexuality. The best pieces, such as "Aguantando'' (to endure), "Negocios,'' "Edison, NJ'' and the title story, portray young people waiting for transformation, waiting to belong. Their worlds generally consist of absent fathers, silent mothers and friends of questionable principles and morals. Diaz's restrained prose reveals their hopes only by implication. It's a style suited to these characters, who long for love but display little affection toward each other. Still, the author's compassion glides just below the surface, occasionally emerging in poetic passages of controlled lyricism, lending these stories a lasting resonance. BOMC and QPB alternates; foreign rights sold in Holland, Norway, Sweden, the U.K., Spain, France and Germany. (Sept.) FYI: Diaz was the only writer chosen by Newsweek as one of the 10 "New Faces of 1996."
Diaz has received much pre-publication praise and publicity for this, his first collection, of short stories. Set in his native Dominican Republic or in the Dominican neighborhoods of New Jersey, these stories focus on the carnal aspect of human nature. They graphically depict lives defined by poverty and the cynicism and hardness that can develop from it; the complex nature of relationships, both among peers and within families; and the desperation of those who are enslaved by the American drug culture. Diaz's writing is at times somewhat strained, but he provides convincing portraits of characters attempting to cope with lives which provide them with few advantages and much pain. Recommended for academic libraries.Rebecca Stuhr-Rommereim, Grinnell Coll. Libs., Ia.
Díaz's first collection of ten stories, some having appeared in the New Yorker and Story, is certain to draw attention for its gritty view of life in the barrios of the Dominican Republic and rough neighborhoods of urban New Jersey.
Most of the stories are linked by their narrator, who spent his first nine years in the D.R., until his father in the States brought the entire family to South Jersey, where he continued to display the survivalist machismo he developed during years of poverty, scamming, and struggle. In the Caribbean pieces, Díaz offers a boy's-eye view of a hardscrabble life. In "Ysrael," the narrator and his brother, sent to the countryside during the summer, plot to unmask a local oddity, a boy whose face was eaten off by a pig in his youth. Much later in the volume, "No Face" reappears, surviving the taunts of the locals as he waits for his trip to America, where surgeons will work on his face. "Arguantando" documents life in the barrio, where the narrator, his brother, and his mother eke out an existence while hearing nothing from the father. "Negocios" explains why: Robbed of his savings in the US, the father schemes to marry a citizen in order to become one himself, all the time thinking of his family back home. He is hardly a saint, and, reunited in New Jersey, the family is dominated by his violent temper. "Fiesta, 1980" recalls the narrator's bouts of car sickness, for which his father shows no sympathy. In the remaining tales, a teenaged Dominican drug dealer in New Jersey dreams of a normal life with his crackhead girlfriend ("Aurora"); a high-school dealer is disturbed by his best friend's homosexuality ("Drown"); and "How to Date . . ." is a fractured handbook on the subtleties of interracial dating.
Díaz's spare style and narrative poise make for some disturbing fiction, full of casual violence and indifferent morality. A debut calculated to raise some eyebrows.
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Praise for DROWN by Junot Díaz
“There have been several noteworthy literary debuts this year, but Díaz deserves to be singled out for the distinctiveness and caliber of his voice, and for his ability to sum up a range of cultural and cross-cultural experiences in a few sharp images…. The motifs—the father absent and indifferent to the family, his infidelities and bullying while they’re united, the shabby disrepair of northern New Jersey—resonate from story to story and give Drown its cohesion and weight…. These are powerful and convincing stories. And what is powerful in these stories isn’t their cultural message, though that is strong, but a broader, more basic theme…. These 10 finely achieved short stories reveal a writer who will still have something to say after he has used up his own youthful experiences and heartaches.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Talent this big will always make noise…. [The ten stories in Drown] vividly evoke Díaz’s hardscrabble youth in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, where ‘our community was separated from all the other communities by a six-lane highway and the dump.’ Díaz has the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet…”
“Junot Díaz’s stories are as vibrant, tough, unexotic, and beautiful as their settings—Santo Domingo, Dominican Nueva York, the immigrant neighborhoods of industrial New Jersey with their gorgeously polluted skyscapes. Places and voices new to our literature yet classically American: coming-of-age stories full of wild humor, intelligence, rage, and piercing tenderness. And this is just the beginning. Díaz is going to be a giant of American prose.”
“This stunning collection of stories is an unsentimental glimpse at life among immigrants from the Dominican Republic—and another front-line report on the ambivalent promise of the American Dream. Díaz is writing about more than physical dislocation. There is a price for leaving culture and homeland behind…In this cubistic telling, life is marked by relentless machismo, flashes of violence and severe tests of faith from loved ones. The characters are weighted down by the harshness of their circumstances, yet Díaz gives his young narrators a wry sense of humor.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Graceful and raw and painful and smart…His prose is sensible poetry that moves like an interesting conversation…The pages turn and all of a sudden you’re done and you want more.”
—The Boston Globe
“A stunning and kinetic first collection of short stories…. Díaz has the ear of a poet (a rarity among fiction writers), and many of his stories are piloted by a compelling and often fiercely observed first-person narration. Díaz’s precise language drives the accumulation of particular concrete sensory details to the universals of broader, nuanced experience. Comparisons to writers like Sandra Cisneros or Jess Mowry or even Edwidge Danticat (all of whom are at the top of my list) are probably inevitable, but Díaz distinguishes himself thoroughly in this book…. In an era of the glib, hip ‘I’ve-seen-it-all-nothing-shocks-me-anymore’ narrator, Díaz doesn’t back away from sentiment. Though he is never mawkish, his stories are richly textured in feeling…Díaz is a life-smart, savvy writer who, because he’s honest and often funny, very gently breaks your heart.”
—Hungry Mind Review
“New Jersey and the Dominican Republic are thousands of miles apart, but in Junot Díaz’s seductive collection of short stories, they seem to blend into each other as effortlessly as Díaz weaves the words that bring to life the recurring characters that populate both places…. In a sense, this book is about that old and much misunderstood Latino demon, machismo, which only recently is being seen as something not innate to Latino males, but rather as the result of their often futile attempts to reconcile their dual roles as men (in the eyes of their families) and as mere boys (in the eyes of the outside world)…. There’s a lot of artistry in this book, and where there is art, there is always hope.”
“Remarkable…His style is succinct and unadorned, yet the effect is lush and vivid, and after a few lines you are there with him, living in his documentary, his narration running through your head almost like your own thoughts…. Vignettes…observed with depth and tenderness but most of all with a simple honesty that rings as clear and true as a wind chime.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“Mesmerizingly honest, heart-breaking and full of promise…Tales of life among the excluded classes of the diaspora, they tread fearlessly where lesser writers gush and politicize—which is exactly their political and aesthetic power.”
“The talent is strong and individual…. Díaz’s languageis careful and astringent…powerful and revelatory.”