I wanted to like this collection. I really did. Recommended by a friend, the author having just recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and the writing being described as the kind of downbeat material I usually go in for in a big way, the 1996 short story collection Drown disappointed me pretty much across the board.
This must be something I am alone in, as Diaz is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review. The 21st century has seen him win prize after prize after prize. Yet for me, Diaz’s stories in this collection are an unsurprising lot. Using the immigrant experience as his springboard, the author weaves together stories, many of which the same characters inhabit and many in which they might have.
Mainly about on a young Dominican’s near-fatherless youth in his homeland and his struggles adapting to the United States, as well as the various strains and hardships of other Dominican immigrants, Drown treads ground seen before in other immigrant writers as well as other authors focused on the intersection of minority culture and petty crime. While I generally consider it unfair to compare one writer to another, as if we couldn’t have many good writers canvassing the same beat, much of Diaz’s material here feels less than fresh. Julia Alvarez’s Garcia family covered much of the same struggling Dominican immigrant saga, while Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets and Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running cover the crime angle, big and small.
What makes these comparisons unfortunate is how much more varied, interesting and visceral each of those authors make the material in comparison to Diaz. While the books of the two latter authors are nonfiction accounts, there is enough of Diaz’s own life salted through these stories (immigration to New Jersey, absentee father, employment as pool table delivery guy) that they blur the line between creativity and creative selection in much fiction of an autobiographical nature.
While there are occasional lapses into brief poetic fugues, for the most part Diaz’s narrators deliver an unvarnished life story that seems to flinch every time it approaches sentiments other than disgust, rage, or despair. The seediness is unleavened by poetic soar and the characters’ cruelty and maltreatment of each other comes off as pointlessly dramatic, less as drawn character flaws than an unsuccessful authorial gambit.
“How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” one of the bright spots in the collection, reads as a sort-of advice column on making it with different types of girls, dropping assertions as to which girls are willing to do what and how they will view your apartment, your life, your body. Here Diaz mixes a dash of humor to his pathos, heightening the effect and delivering a fiction that is both experimental in its approach, while being highly accessible. Readers are instructed to hide the government cheese early in the night, but not to forget it lest your mother whip your ass. Then there are delicious bits of self-consciousness regarding your status half in one world and half in another: ''Take down any embarrassing photos of your family in the campo, especially the one with the half-naked kids dragging a goat on a rope leash.'' It’s a veritable minefield of racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes that Diaz’s voice nimbly dances throughout, while demonstrating the devastating effectiveness of those same stereotypes.
Elsewhere, however, Diaz’s characters read as if they were little more than the melodramatic characters drawn from bad television movies. His hard-shelled narrators are merely hiding quivering, sensitive inner selves, the bad boys with the hearts of gold who will, even so, still gank your stereo. The not very bright girls, filled through and through with family tragedies, who will break you in two with their self-destructive streaks, taking you with them as they work through their pyschodramas. The vain as a peacock fathers with their mistress on the side and their penchant for getting their belts off when it’s time for parental discipline. We’ve seen all of these characters before, repeatedly, and Diaz does little to enliven their portrayals.
Instead of fresh perspectives on these characters, the author papers over their thinness with language that veers into sentimentality and borrowed poetic stylings. "We're all under the big street lamps, everyone's the color of day-old piss,” one narrator writes, cribbing from Ellroy’s modern-day pulp workover of Hammet and Chandler’s territory. When he gets real, takes on something truly dangerous, such as the stew of emotions and avoidances from adolescent homosexual experimentation in the title story, or as in “Ysrael” and “No Face,” two Dominican stories about the life of a teenager who had his face badly mutilated by a wild pig when he was an infant, Diaz’s stories transcend the rest of the collection’s shortcomings and demonstrate a sincere gift for documenting some of the more painful and confusing corners of the human condition.
Partly and obviously the product of a very young man (Diaz was 28 when the collection was published), Drown reads more as the promising collection of a talented but still shapeless grad student in the creative writing program finding his fictional bearings. A voice is emergent in the collection, half-enclosed in influences and youthful conceits, half striding the page and hoping to make a mark, but ultimately a voice needing a bit more seasoning. In the intervening twelve years, he apparently found it.