With some of his short stories originally published in prominent journals such as The New Yorker and The Paris Review and also drafted into the revered annals of The Best American Short Stories, Junot Díaz cherrypicks from his acclaimed stories and combines them with others to create his anthology Drown. This collection takes us from the hot, dusty neighborhoods of a poor Dominican barrio to the freezing, cockroach-infested apartments of New York. Throughout Drown, we watch Yunior, the main character throughout the anthology, struggle against his family’s poverty, his abusive father, and the people in his many broken relationships.
By the end of the first page, the tone and setting of Drown glare as intensely as the Dominican sun:
We were on our way to the colmado for an errand, a beer for my tío, when Rafa stood still and tilted his head, as if listening to a message I couldn’t hear, something beamed in from afar…I was nine that summer, but my brother was twelve, and he was the one who wanted to see Ysrael, who looked out towards Barbacoa and said, We should pay that kid a visit.
Díaz maintains this intensity for almost the entire book. Through punchy, vivid language, Drown takes an astonishingly honest look at a setting where ignoring the problems would be our first instinct, and does this through bite-sized instances that, while short, are rich with character and conflict.
The gripping language Díaz employs is littered with bits of Dominican slang and dialogue-esque narration that serve as a reminder that the main character has long since grown out of his childhood. One of the strongest aspects of the anthology is the setting, which stands with surprisingly little description, visible instead through the traditions every character has, whether those traditions be as innocent as playing dominoes in the shade of a mango tree or as sly as getting lucky with the local girls down in the campo. These settings have an ongoing movement and life rather than a static presence, like watching a dancer leap across a stage instead of staring at a painting.
Few of the characters in Drown own much, and where money and material possessions are scarce, relationships are the most valuable thing they have. Yunior constantly follows his irritable older brother, Rafa, around and he adores his depressed mother, Mami. So when Rafa punches Yunior and tells him to stop tailing him as he does in “Ysrael,” or when Mami slaps Yunior in “Aguantando” when he tries to ask her why his father didn’t come home after years of being away, we’re just as stricken as Yunior by the harsh treatment. By endangering these delicate relationships with conflicting desires, Díaz plays our emotional cords like a guitarist, and his bolero of love and loss resonates with startling potency.
Finding time to read Drown is easy; all the stories in the first half of the book are broken up into fragments, which leaves plenty of opportunity for the busy reader to set down or pick up the book as freely as their schedule allows. Additionally, this fragmented format plays greatly into one of the themes of the book: broken relationships. The format is a visual representation for how Yunior must sift through the shards of his shattered relationships to make sense of his life as he tells it to his readers.
Like broken glass, the few places where Yunior’s childhood is smooth are edged with razor sharp memories. This makes for severe shifts in mood. For example, during one scene in “Fiesta, 1980” Yunior’s aunt brings him some food after his father forbids him from dining with the family. His endearing reaction as he devours the furtive treat—“Those pastelitos didn’t stand a chance”—jars far out of proportion when in the next story he casually remarks on the drug corruption in his neighborhood: “I have friends...who tell me they deal drugs to whole families, from the grandparents down to the fourth-graders.” These contrasts of ordinary childhood experiences, and the appalling consequences of growing up in poverty, are where the intersections of character and setting are the most astonishing.
One of the weaknesses of the anthology goes back to how Díaz constructs his settings. While the imagery is solid and cutting, the occasional lack of visual description leaves the exposition groundless and dull. This is most notable in the last story of the collection, “Negocios,” which follows the journey of Yunior’s father into the States as he searches for a job in order to bring his family to him. Some of the scenes where we get to see characters interacting are just too far apart, connected by too little description, and the expositional in-between gives the sense of floating in a literary null-space while kicking off of occasional imagery that is more clearly seen. The saving grace of this last section is the closure we get from finally learning more about Yunior’s absent father. But even though some of the mystery built around his infrequent appearances are dispelled, perhaps the greater payoff is coming closer to understanding how Yunior himself feels about his mythical father.
Whether you’re a writer wanting insight on creating intimately honest characters or you’re a reader looking for fast-paced mixed-diction short stories set in the poorer residences of Latin America, this book has what you’re looking for; Drown will be more than enough to slake your thirst.