Single mother households, unrequited love, heartbreak, junkies, life in the ghettos with immigrants trying to make a life in the US and trying to adjust to the changes, families left behind in the homeland (Dominican Republic in this case) all these make up the stories of Junot Diaz's dazzling debut collection 'Drown'.
A typical immigration from a third world country happens like this: the husband/father first migrates to the 'promised land', gets some job and after some time the family follows him there. But in several cases, it doesn't happen this way and the father becomes lost (or loses himself) and the wife/mother is left to raise the family on her own. This 'absent father' is a recurrent theme in these stories, with the mother/wife having to bear the burden of bringing up the family on her own. It is not just the financial strain that the absence of the father causes, it also results in emotional strain too. The wife does not not know where the father is, why he has not got in touch with them and whether he will be back at all or not. Sometimes letters come from the husband saying that he would come to take them away, but it never happens. The kids are sometimes too young to know and understand the implications of their father not being with them, but it causes different emotional scars in them. When the financial situation becomes very dire, the mother sends her kids to her relatives house to stay until it improves. Though the kids are young, they can sense a humiliation in this instinctively, in the acceptance that your family cannot provide for you and hence is sending you away. Though they cannot articulate it in words, they express it with their unwillingness to mesh with their relatives even though they are welcoming. The last story 'Negocios' looks at this from the father's view as told by the son. We see the father arriving at Chicago, working crazy hours, then moving to New Jersey on foot because he has no money, hitchhiking whenever possible. He works 20 hour days the whole year and little by little he gets dislocated mentally also from his country, marries another woman has kids and completely forsakes his first family. Later he leaves them too and comes back to his first family and finally leaves them too. The son (or Diaz) doesn't condone or justify his actions, but only tries to understand what made his father behave like the way he did. Was it because he wasn't able to handle the situations he found himself in or because he had wanderlust in him always, for which the immigrant life gave avenues to explore.
Many of these stories have 2 levels, one is the theme which is outwardly at the center of the story and other is the story that is only hinted at and alluded to by Diaz in passing and if one does not pay attention, what the author implies may get lost. The story 'Fiesta,1980' is ostensibly about the vomiting fits that the narrator suffers from whenever he takes a trip in his father's van and the trip that his family takes to celebrate the narrator's aunt's migration to America. But Diaz also shows us a family that could be on the verge of a break up, as the narrator tells us about his father's mistress, about his meeting her. But we are never told whether his mother knows about her husband's affair or not. Is there an uneasy alliance between the couple with the wife holding on for the sake of her children. The narrator and his brother may be young, but they are not so innocent enough to not understand what an 'affair' is and more importantly know enough to keep their mouth shut and not blab about it to their mother, thus maintaining a status quo of sorts in the family. The women in the stories fall in the 'implicitly hinted at' category. We always see them through the eyes of the narrator who are always male, we see her working 12 hours shifts, ,asking co-workers to accompany her home as she lives in an unsafe place but not inviting them over, see old photos of her which speak of an earlier life which was probably easier than the one she is living now. When the narrator describes his mother's actions after she comes home from a long day at the factory as
"We could never get Mami to do anything after work, even cook dinner, if she didn't first sit a while in her rocking chair. She didn't want to hear about our problems, the scratches we'd put onto our knees, who said what. She sat on the back patio with her eyes closed and let the bugs bite mountains onto her arms and legs."
it is an indictment of how women are treated. We see a woman who is so weary from being a single mother and rearing her kids on her own and from her job that she first needs some moments of solitude, a temporary reprieve from the harsh realities of her life, a reprieve that probably fortifies her to continue and hence she endures even the bug bites while enjoying the precious few moments which are for her and her alone.
The tendency to casual violence in children finds it's outlet in two stories. In both there is a young boy, whose face has apparently been disfigured by a pig when he was a very small child and is always wearing a mask as a result. The other kids in stories torment him by throwing stones, tease him, try to take his mask off and generally treat him as an object of curiosity, something that is an object of entertainment for them. It's a reminder to all of us to not underestimate children's propensity to be cruel.
In 'Drown', we see the extent to which a person will go to conform to some societal norms while breaking others and seeing no contradiction between the two. The narrator is a small time drug dealer and his friend Beto is one who has plans and ambitions for his life and he is gay. The narrator himself could be gay (or bisexual or even just curious) as he doesn't reject the passes made by Beto. But the culture of machismo, so venerated in Latin American makes him to gloss over his own feelings and causes a distancing in their friendship. It's an irony that the narrator has no qualms about being a druggie, but is more worried about his machismo and indeed even being seen as a friend of a gay. That 'Beta' who probably will make a better life, be a model citizen than the narrator who is most likely to end in prison, if not a violent end is not of any consequence, as being seen as macho and being a punk is more conforming to society than Beta's lifestyle. Such is the state of the world.
'Aurora' is a story of heartbreak, unrequited love and the manner in which loved ones hurt each other, narrated by a junkie, whose dazed eyes and emotions we follow as he takes us on a glazed trip through the run down haciendas, with unflushed toilets, puke everywhere, crap in the living room with the narrator having a love-hate relationship with Aurora. . When the narrator describes his going around in the dark haciendas like
"I go from room to room, hand out in front of me, wishing that maybe just this once I'll feel her soft face on the other side of my fingers instead of some fucking plaster wall"
he could very well be describing his and Aurora's entire life as they stagger around like Zombies, hoping that for once they will find something good, but always going towards their self-destruction. Even the prose for this story is like this, staggered and slurry vignettes from the narrator's life. It is also an indictment of a country that seems to have nothing going for it and gives an understanding as to why the people in these stories are willing to brave so much to migrate, anything to get out from the hell hole they are trapped in (It's another thing that life in America is not always quite as they imagine). For sheer writing prowess, this is the best story in the collection.
Diaz's writing has a sing-song quality to it, the rhythmic cadences giving it a musical feel. Whether it be describing the heat and dust of the Dominican republic, the narrow ghettos, the coffee plantations, the sea ("the surf exploding into the air like a cloud of shredded silver") the 'Caribbean' comes to life. The liberal sprinkling of Spanish words in the stories also add to the musical quality of the writing. Diaz achieves all this with seeming ease, casualness, and a very distinct voice that is breathtaking in a first book. Though the themes of the stories themselves give a sense of deja-vu, the characters and the writing does the alchemy of the stories being familiar but unique and fresh at the same time and that makes this a must read.