Drown by Junot Díaz

Buy it at Amazon.com

The 150-word Review: There are moments in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao where Díaz’ street-wise, ghetto-nerd pyrotechnics fall away, where substance transcends style, and the authenticity of his characters shines: Lola’s story, Beli’s three loves, Abelard’s tragedy, Oscar’s final days in Santo Domingo. Long before Oscar Wao, Díaz cultivated this kernel of authenticity in the soil of his 1996 collection, Drown.

Shifting from a dusty campo in Santo Domingo to a crack house in New Jersey, Drown contains ten stories that read like snippets from a larger narrative. The victim of a brutal unprovoked attack in “Ysrael” returns in “No Face” to give us a glimpse into his daily life. A young man remembers “holding on” during his father’s abandonment in “Aguantando” then, in “Negocios,” he imagines his father’s lonely, frustrating struggle in America. In Drown, Díaz’ narrative subject is the immigrant, existing in two different worlds and belonging to neither.

You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of: childhood bullies, sibling disputes, the first days of blunted-out adult independence, crack head girlfriends, summers at the pool, remembering childhood parties and watching the adults dance, fighting for a tenuous grip on the bottom rung of the American dream, fathers and mothers, and adolescent sexual fumblings.

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, “Yunior” is Junot Díaz’ family nickname.

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Junot Díaz on Grand Theft Auto IV

I haven’t purchased this game yet because, as the new more responsible version of myself, I haven’t wanted to pony up for a XBOX 360 or PS3 and, more truthfully, there isn’t enough room in my life for my marriage, fatherhood, my job, this blog, and GTA IV. Vice City and San Andreas took up significantly large enough chunks out of my life to know what I’d be getting into with GTA IV. With age comes the knowledge to know when to quit while you’re ahead.

However, I do fear that I’m missing a relevant cultural phenomenon. This article by Junot Díaz in the Wall Street Journal explores the cultural impact GTA IV and finds it wanting. GTA IV, he argues, is not the video game generation’s “The Godfather.” It’s not even its “Scarface.”

“GTA IV for all its awesomeness doesn’t have the sordid bipolar humanity of “The Sopranos,” and it certainly lacks the epic flawed protagonists that define “The Godfather” and its bloodier lesser brother “Scarface.” Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human. Does GTA IV do that? Not for me it doesn’t, and heck, I love this damn game.”

Despite GTA IV’s cultural and narrative shortcomings, Díaz recognizes this platforms potential and relishes in the belief that the next truly transformative video game is on its way. Díaz quotes “The Six Million Dollar Man,” by saying, “we have the technology.” I’m wont to agree. It’s a no-brainer. With GTA IV’s box office success, $500 million worldwide in its first week, top narrative talent (like Díaz, perhaps) will inevitably find its way into the video game industry. Maybe it’s time for a console upgrade.

Photo illustration by Sergio Capursi/WSJ; Rockstar Games (stills); iStockphoto (frame, nail)

(Thanks for the link, jdlrm.)

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Alma by Junot Diaz

Junot Díaz, among many things, is a damn confident writer. One could be easily seduced into thinking this is just how he talks, how he raps, that he’s lucky this comes off so well. No. It may seem effortless and free, but a lot of hard goddamn work goes into writing like this. And faith. From The New Yorker, “Alma” by Junot Díaz.

“You have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit. An ass she never liked until she met you. Ain’t a day that passes that you don’t want to press your face against that ass or bite the delicate sliding tendons of her neck. You love how she shivers when you bite, how she fights you with those arms that are so skinny they belong on an after-school special.”

Consider this an afternoon delight.

Two Interviews with Junot Diaz

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve been digging through all the interviews with him about the “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here are two good ones:

Interview in BOMB Magazine by Edwidge Danticat (a fellow NBCC Award winner for “Brother, I’m Dying)

Interview in Boldtype (where we learn that even though Yunior is not Diaz and Diaz is not Yunior, they at least share the same mouth)

Good stuff.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (page 75 to THE END)

Well. This didn’t go quite like I planned it. I finished the novel last night. Couldn’t stop reading it. And the thought of having to stop to write a synopsis was simply untenable. It would have been a disservice to Junot Díaz and, in truth, to the readers.

I didn’t enjoy writing the “Your Designated Reader” posts at all. I think I approached them all wrong. They seemed a bit pointless and a terrible way to experience any novel, much less one that was such a joy to read. Seriously, if any of you actually were following these posts: read the book. It will be a much better use of your time.

Maybe a better way would have been to simply journal my impressions after each sitting and not worry so much about chronicling everything that goes on in the book. A more solipsistic approach, sure, but maybe that’s the point.

So let’s wrap this up quickly and I’ll share a few of my thoughts about “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” I’ll try my best not to ruin the ending.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (pages 51-75)

Chapter Two – Wildwood 1982-1985 (pages 51-75)

“It’s never the changes we want that change everything.”

There is a shift in voice for this section. The narrative has switched from our humble Watcher, to Oscar’s sister, Lola, who gives a mostly first-person account of her coming of age.

Three themes dominate Lola’s narrative: her life-and-death test of wills against her mother, her mother’s illness, and her newfound independent spirit (that is nurtured when she is sent to Santo Domingo.)

The first three pages are Lola’s recollection (written in the second person) of the day her mother discovers a lump in her breast. The day everything changes. She describes her mother’s breasts as:

“Immensities. One of the wonders of the world. The only ones you’ve seen that are bigger are in nudie magazines or on really fat ladies. They’re 35 triple-Ds and the aureoles are as big as saucers and black as pitch and at their edges are fierce hairs that sometimes she plucked and sometimes she didn’t.”

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (pages 28-50)

Oscar is Brave

“Senior year found him bloated, dyspeptic, and, most cruelly, alone in his lack of girlfriend.” Even Oscar’s two nerdy friends, Al and Miggs, have girlfriends-two skanks-but girlfriends nonetheless. Oscar has the epiphany that even his friends were embarrassed by him.

He asks his mother if she thinks he’s ugly. She replies, “Well, hijo, you certainly don’t take after me.” Another glimpse of Oscar’s relationship with his mother.

The rest of this section covers Oscar’s trip to Santo Domingo for the summer. Where his reclusive tendencies are encouraged by his abuela, Nina Inca, who allows him to stay indoors and focus on his reading and writing. When asked by his cousins, “What is he doing?” She replies, “being a genius is what.” Oscar returns from Santo Domingo with a newfound sense of pride in his creative impulses and his “otakuness” (this is good word I forgot to mention on pg. 21).

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