There’s a whole lot of sadness, ache, alienation and desolation in these stories (sold yet?), which combine an exquisite emotional rawness and heft thThere’s a whole lot of sadness, ache, alienation and desolation in these stories (sold yet?), which combine an exquisite emotional rawness and heft that distinguish this collection from the crowd of (let’s admit it) largely ignored short story collections. These stories were also distinguished by people who know more than I do about books (first, they’re printed on paper, and second, they’ve got a lot of them word things in ‘em), as this book was shortlisted for both the 2002 National Book Award and the 2003 Pulitzer, which is okay for an author’s first book, I guess.
The accolades are deserved: it’s nearly unbelievable that a first-time author could already have this deftly subtle touch, the self-discipline and restraint to ensure there’s nary a word or sentiment out of place, and the ability to write so many kinds of characters so well. There’s an incredible diversity in the ages of the characters and the situations portrayed that’s unusual for short story collections, and Haslett’s as convincing portraying an older, mentally ill father in the opening story “Notes to My Biographer” as he is portraying an awkward teenager who volunteers at a mental institution in the final story, “The Volunteer.” Several times while reading, I thought that I’d never read a story about his kind of situation before, which also impressed me, as short fiction can be rather staid in that aspect.
This is an impressive debut, and even a decade later, these stories have a powerful, emotional resonance that left me rent and reeling. ...more
I have a gift for picking a highly praised, award-winning author’s least essential/most unimpressive novel as my introduction to that writer. PerhapsI have a gift for picking a highly praised, award-winning author’s least essential/most unimpressive novel as my introduction to that writer. Perhaps it’s due to this unfortunate gift that, despite the fact that every other book Lahiri’s ever published is sitting, already purchased, on our bookshelves, I started here because NEW! and also, I don’t want to disappoint the library by not reading a book they put on hold for me months ago. I wouldn’t recommend making the same decision, partially because this is not a good book, and partially because the library is not a corporeal being and is thus incapable of being disappointed.
The Lowland tells the story of an Indian family with two incredibly close brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up together in the 1950s and 1960s in Tollygunge, outside Calcutta. The boys are practically twins, halves of a greater whole, and their personalities are straight out of a 1980s buddy cop movie: Subhash is boring and overly cautious, while Udayan is daring and a bit wild. By the time they reach college and graduate school, however, the boys are on different paths, eventually on different continents: Udayan becomes involved with a Maoist political movement in India, while Subhash gets a scholarship to study environmental science in Rhode Island. The geographical and ideological distance is further exacerbated by Udayan’s subsequent actions, including a hasty marriage to a woman not selected by his parents, and the family has to deal with the consequences of those actions, mostly by being really depressed, and it’s great fun to read about undynamic characters who are bummed and out of it..
The story here is largely told from Subhash’s perspective, and his cautiousness invades the clipped, flat, emotionless prose that seems almost dedicated to not delving deeply into anything. Udayan’s perspective could have provided a welcome break from this, but his passion is directed at allocating resources to the people, and like all college communists, he’s boring, full of himself, and not worth listening to. Lahiri also has clearly Done Some Research on this Naxalite movement, and she’s too willing to drag the novel to a halt to show that off with way too much information about leaders, writers, positions, and political parties that I just couldn’t track. It’s the difference between saying, “he listened to Black Flag” and saying “he listened to the June 10, 1982 demo of the Southern California punk rock band Black Flag’s song, ‘What Can You Believe,’ recorded in a small studio in Venice on Main Street during the relatively brief period of Chuck Biscuits’ tenure in the band. While he preferred Robo’s drumming and Ron ‘Chavo’ Reyes’ vocals, this lineup - Greg Ginn, Dez Cadena, Dukowski, and Rollins - featured some major advantages over other Flag lineups, which I’ll discuss at length now, and then mention Kira and Keith Morris every ten pages or so, because they’re now apparently characters you’re supposed to follow.”
Gripping, I know.
The non-brother characters are pretty one-dimensional and flimsy. The boys’ parents seem to only exist as a general Old Way Of Doing Things - like arranged marriages and children living with their parents forever - that the boys don’t want to do, but even that theoretical source of tension is muted by the parents’ passive-aggressive nature. (Even a crappy movie like Varsity Blues at least mined this parent-child tension for the endlessly rich scene where James Van Der Beek tells his dad, “I...don’t…wahnt…yer...lahfe.” Take that, Your Father’s Oldsmobile!) There aren’t any screaming matches or demands, just quiet disappointment (which provides all the excitement of, say, Leonard Cohen’s stage antics!). Udayan’s wife, Gauri, is cold and distant, and seems to exist simply to move a few plot points along (and to bore us with philosophy shop talk, because people always say, “Oh, do talk more about Hegel!”). There are several potential themes here - family, the nature of grief, immigration, tradition, politics, geography, etc. - but they all feel unexplored, particularly when compared with a book like Americanah, which contained many similar themes but portrayed them with an impressive poignance and nuance.
There was still enough here to keep me reading, but my continual hope that “oh, this is where it’s going to pick up!” was never fulfilled. (I’m not sure why I continue to believe that a subpar novel will suddenly have some beautiful moment or plot twist and everything that’s been boring or not good previously will miraculously become great. This stupid belief makes me finish a lot of less-than-stellar novels.) The plot involves only a few Big Moments, most of which seem to ignore completely the little characterization that there’s been up to that point. Though Lahiri’s depictions of small, real-feeling details and moments are apparently her strong suit, I didn’t find the prose particularly impressive, though I did just read (and love) Alice McDermott’s Someone, which set the bar pretty high in that arena. Disappointing, and decidedly skippable. ...more
No matter how young and hip you think you are, every so often, some cultural product that you don’t get at all gets rave reviews and some measure of sNo matter how young and hip you think you are, every so often, some cultural product that you don’t get at all gets rave reviews and some measure of success, indicating that the world has turned and left you behind, transforming you instantly into an aged grump who mutters things about “the kids these days.” Well, now I’m telling The Flamethrowers to get off of my lawn.
This book is covered with glowing reviews (albeit from authors like Karen Russell - another cultural product I don’t get - and Dana Spiotta, whose Stone Arabia was also overhyped and disappointing) about Kushner being a bold new voice and a brilliant writer, which made me want to read it even though it’s about a young woman who rides motorcycles and is way into the avant-garde 1970s New York art/political scene, which all set off huge warning bells. (Riding motorcycles as a character trait is fine when you’re a character in a four-minute Bruce Springsteen song, but not so much in a novel, where you should probably have something interesting about you other than the type of vehicle you utilize for transport. Also, there are few people less interesting in this world than self-described avant-garde artists.) But it’s not just those writers who love this - I haven’t read a single bad review (and I’ve looked, spurred on by the ever-present fear of being the only one who doesn’t get something).
As one might expect for a book about artists who are more interested in explaining their work than making art, this book is all style over substance, and dozens of pages are routinely wasted on naught but the vapid verbal exchanges at gatherings of untalented conceptual artists, who all speak to each other in ridiculous mission statements and bumper-sticker philosophies that attempt to justify their narcissistic navel-gazing. For example, at one party, the artists all listen to an extended monologue one of them has recorded on a reel-to-reel about how real estate agents always say “home,” never “house,” etc., which leads to a second monologue about how this is an insightful investigation of the importance of words in consumerism and blah blah blah. In another particularly dreadful line, the lead character, Reno, finds herself thinking in the voice of her friend, a former Warhol Factory groupie who now believes that her job as a diner waitress is a sort of performance art, who says that “the three most cowardly acts were to exhibit ambition, to become famous, or to kill yourself.” (That is at least as dumb as that “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” line, “Better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool.” Also, in general, if something reminds you of a Don Johnson movie, it probably is not Great Art.) If the greatest crime in the art world is being boring, then Reno is a dastardly criminal, completely passive, naive, and blase. Since even the other characters comment on how simple she is, her lack of insight isn’t enough to sustain a chapter, much less a novel.
There are occasional forays into other stories outside of 1970s New York that are a bit more successful, but they’re still not very interesting, and they aren’t well-integrated with the rest of the story. The reviews of this book all praise its prose, imagination, and energy, but I just didn’t get it. Although I generally like modern art, these artists are much more like Jeff Koons’ Three Ball 50/50 Tank than Tom Sachs’ clever and funny Nutsy’s - no joie de vivre or sense of humor. This book was decidedly disappointing. ...more
Although Nixon and Watergate are incredibly resonant, powerful symbols or moments for many people of a certain age, like all people who use the phraseAlthough Nixon and Watergate are incredibly resonant, powerful symbols or moments for many people of a certain age, like all people who use the phrase “of a certain age,” I am not of that age. I am also fearful of books on the subject, as the only bad Vonnegut novel, Jailbird, was an attempt to satirize Watergate, and my wife has assured me that Roth’s Our Gang is perhaps his most decidedly skippable work.
Still, since Mallon was the only one of the five writers nominated for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner award that I’d heard of (it’s like they went out of their way to counter the’ “hey, nominate the famous writers, ya maroons” spirit of the 2012 National Book Awards), and (more importantly), because, unlike most of the other nominees, my library actually had his works available, I thought I’d give it a read. I also felt obliged to read it, since, when my son asked me what Watergate was, the best answer I could give was “Um, Nixon ordered a group named the Plumbers to break into an office in the Watergate to like...steal a shrink’s files? And maybe the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg were involved?” (Oops.)
Clearly, I didn’t come to this book with a wealth of knowledge about the topic, which was an immediate problem, as the first three pages are just a list of a ton of characters (112, to be exact) I didn’t already know (Erlichman, Haldeman, etc.). In addition, I know so little about politics that this list, which identifies the characters by their job titles, doesn’t help me (what does the special counsel to the President do, and how does that differ from the White House counsel?). Mallon does presume a fair amount of familiarity with Watergate and those involved, which may require a little internet research for the full experience (or to answer the ever-present question in historical fiction: how much of this is made up?).
And yet, despite the seeming impossibility of making a confusing, seemingly boring story covered millions of times already involving a huge cast of characters into an entertaining read, Mallon pulls it off by telling the story from the perspective of more peripheral characters and making them all human and compelling. G. Gordon Liddy, Haldeman, Woodward and Bernstein - all of them appear only momentarily in the book. Instead, we’re treated to a long list of memorable characters: Rose Marie Woods, Nixon’s faithful secretary, who’s devoted her life to a man who’s falling from greatness into bankruptcy and disgrace; Pat Nixon, who has grown weary of politics and her husband, the man she loves third most in the world; Martha Mitchell, the unpredictable, alcoholic wife of the former attorney general; Fred LaRue, the “bagman” who leaves a personal check for his country club dues at the scene of the crime; and even Nixon himself, who is somehow sociopathic and sympathetic. Mallon is skilled enough to wring both derision and pathos from Nixon, such as his agonizing over whether to release the tapes he’s been recording of all his conversations (for history, and to make sure Kissinger doesn’t get credit for everything). It’s crazy that he believes these narcissistic expletive-filled tirades will somehow endear him to the public, but also a little touching, too.
Still, the absolute star of the show is Alice Longworth, the octogenarian daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, whose legacy as queen of the bon mot (sorry, Oscar Wilde) is polished to a brilliant sheen here. She steals every single scene she’s in (and a few others for good measure), for example, describing a Senator as “a tennis pro who had just retired to become the hotel gigolo,” or rolling her eyes when an Eisenhower and a Truman seem ready to approach her about all this Presidential family crap. In a book that’s largely about reacting to and talking about big events that happen off-stage, she’s the much-needed change of pace who also cleverly allows Mallon to present the long view of history - after all, Watergate and hippie protesters seem kind of silly when you’ve seen “legless Civil War veterans begging in the streets” as she has.
Much more fun than you’d think, and a real testament to just how talented a novelist Mallon is. ...more
As the wide array of ratings here might tell you, Threats is not a book for everyone. The basic premise – the wife of a man with severe memory issuesAs the wide array of ratings here might tell you, Threats is not a book for everyone. The basic premise – the wife of a man with severe memory issues dies, and he begins finding oddly threatening notes all around his house, indicating that perhaps she’s not dead after all – makes it seem like a Memento-style thriller, which it most definitely is not. The novel’s protagonist, David, can’t seem to remember anything, including the details of his wife’s murder, and spends most of his time puttering around in his robe, occasionally soiling himself, instead of getting down to the detective work one might expect from him in a more story-driven (if clichéd) tale. Instead of a linear narrative or a by-the-numbers solvable mystery, Amelia Gray’s first novel (shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award) is built around atmosphere, keeping the reader off-balance, and a general creepiness, combining David Lynch’s ethereal sense of dream-like confusion and aversion to logic with David Cronenberg’s obsession with the body and decay – a sort of Grey Gardens setting that expands into David’s mental state as well. (Note to self: when all your metaphors are film-based, it’s probably time to read a few more books.)
Gray is talented enough to keep things moving along quickly, but her clear gifts in creating an eerie, macabre dreamscape and a novel-length unsettling feeling of Not Quite Right ultimately fell short for me, as I expected some sort of semi-cohesive finale to make some sense out of everything that had come before. Instead, like a goodly portion of David Lynch’s movies (which I watched with similarly unreasonable hopes), there were a few moments I liked, and the ride was interesting, but in the end, I was just kinda disappointed by the lack of a cohesive story. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but readers who (like me) prefer a little more logic and plot may be disappointed. ...more
Over the past few years, I’ve found the Man Booker shortlist to be a pretty reliable source of new, interesting books I wouldn’t have discovered otherOver the past few years, I’ve found the Man Booker shortlist to be a pretty reliable source of new, interesting books I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, like 2011’s excellent Pigeon English and The Sisters Brothers, or, from 2010, Room, Andrea Levy’s amazing The Long Song, and Tom McCarthy’s weird-but-interesting C. This year, however, while Bring Up the Bodies was absolutely brills, the two shortlisted works I’ve read - this book and The Garden of Evening Mists - have been absolute Crap City. I know it’s only March, but this will almost definitely be the worst thing I read this year, even if I end up reading something like a Family Circus Compendium of Only Those Strips Where Jeffy Runs Around in a Circuitous Route as Opposed to a Much More Sensible Straight Line.
From the outset, Swimming Home is notably awkward and unbuyable, full of stilted dialogue and awkward phrasing that makes it read like a poorly translated Chekov play. For example, in the opening scene, where the five vacationers (Isabel Jacobs, famed war correspondent; Jozef “Joe” Jacobs, famed poet; their 14-year-old daughter, Nina; their friends, Laura and Mitchell) discover something in their pool, Isabel says something “in her detached war-correspondent voice,” not because she’s using a particular tone of voice, but because she’s a war correspondent, and the author couldn’t think of a better way to introduce this fact.
For some reason, although the thing in the pool is actually a naked young woman - Kitty, a young woman with mental problems and an aversion to clothes trying to play the part of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl - they think it might be a bear, because just the day before, they discussed an article where a bear swam in a Hollywood actor’s pool and was shot with a tranquilizer gun, leading the famous, renowned poet, Jozef, to go off on the following sub-Bania-from-Seinfeld “riff”: “Did [the bear] ever get home? Perhaps the barbiturate inserted inside the dart, also known as ‘chemical capture,’ had made the bear’s legs shake and jerk? Had the tranquilliser helped the bear cope with life’s stressful events, calming its agitated mind so that it now pleaded with authorities to throw it small prey injected with barbiturate syrups?” And there you have it: a ridiculous “is it a small, petite woman whose craziness and sensuality will further strain the Jacobs’ marriage or a huge, hulking bear that has never been seen in the French Riviera” mixup, a poet who apparently writes for Jay Leno, and the awkward writing (the forced “chemical capture” fact is so unnecessary).
It only gets worse from there: Joe quickly realizes that Kitty’s yet another one of his fawning young female fans who track him down and beg him to read one of the poems his greatness has inspired, which makes perfect sense, because everyone everywhere simply cannot get enough poetry. I had to quit my job because I am always so busy buying books of poetry and storing all my tons of similar books of poetry in my Oakland-sized warehouses devoted exclusively to all the books of poetry I own, and then there are all the poetry TV shows I watch, the lengthy Us and Ok! and InStyle features I read about poets and what they’re wearing, and all the poets I stalk. So a plot centered around young girls loving poetry and being totally enthralled by a guy whose “most famous poem” suggests that “a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away’ ” makes perfect sense to me because that is some great-ass poetry and everyone loves poetry.
The only upside to this book is that it’s under 160 pages, and thus, is over relatively quickly, and there are a lot of poorly written lines to laugh at along the way. Like when that artsy poet totally sticks it to Mitchell by saying: “It’s rude to be so normal, Mitchell. Even you must have been a child once. Even you might have thought that there were monsters lurking under your bed. Now that you are such an impeccably normal adult you probably take a discreet look under the bed and tell yourself, well, maybe the monster is invisible!” OH SNAP! It’s great that someone whose whole conceit is that he’s great with words is so good with witty ripostes, right? Tersely worded bon mots that don’t at all sound like a German exchange student putting on the worst one-act black box play you could ever see about his depression and how his parents just don’t “get him” with their nine to five reality mentalities, man?
There are very few books that you can recommend to anyone you know, but this is one such book. It’s a best-seller about a sad but moving topic (the liThere are very few books that you can recommend to anyone you know, but this is one such book. It’s a best-seller about a sad but moving topic (the lives of a dozen or so people, mostly children, in a Mumbai slum), an award winner (the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction), by an award-winning journalist (a MacArthur fellowship, a National Magazine Award, and a Pulitzer), and unlike most non-fiction books, it’s only around 250 pages long (Robert Caro, you might want to take note – and only one page of notes, please). Even if this imaginary person who’s always asking you for book recommendations hates non-fiction, this is one (like Homicide or The Devil in the White City) that “reads like fiction,” which is kind of insulting to the whole non-fiction genre, what with the implication that it’s only worth reading if it’s like something else, but it’s apt.
In fact, the book’s one drawback is that at times it reads too much like fiction: characters reflect on their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and memories in a way that can be a bit off-putting for those seeking a more standard non-fiction style. (An excellent tip from another review below was to flip to the end for Boo’s discussion of how she got all of this information, and after she cites over 150 interviews relating to just one incident, I was sold, and could go back to reading without any nagging questions about authenticity.)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the result of three and a half years of interviews and reporting from Annawadi, a small slum of 3,000 people (in 335 huts) who live on a small strip of land near the Mumbai International Airport. Although almost none of these people are technically considered poor, there are few jobs available beyond garbage scavenging and stealing. The difference between survival and failure is remarkably small: a single misstep can lead to the death or injury of a family’s sole earner; a single demonstrably false accusation to the police can lead to years of imprisonment and the undoing of a family’s fortunes, requiring more bribes than already-strained finances can afford. It’s a bleak, largely hopeless world, and it would be very easy for Boo to go one of several terrible directions given this topic. The specific terrible images that instantly spring to my mind are from ads for some documentary where Jeremy Piven went to the slums of India and there were lots of shots of sickly children living in filth juxtaposed with close-ups of Jeremy Piven looking really sad while opining on How Tough It Is To Live Here And How Brave He Was To Be There Filming It, and probably also How Amazing It Is That Hope Survives Even In The Unlikeliest Of Places. Those are all terrible, horrible, hackneyed thoughts, and lead me to believe that the documentary was called Another Reason To Hate Jeremy Piven.
Fortunately, Katherine Boo takes a decidedly un-Pivenesque approach, removing herself and her judgments from her retelling of events, allowing the events and people to speak for themselves. While, for example, the Indian justice system is unworkably corrupt, she knows that a simple description of what actually transpired is far more effective to prove that than chest-beating polemics would be. Her writing is decorated sparsely but appropriately, evocative yet restrained, and if anything, she has too good of an editor, as some stories end almost too abruptly. Few events are more potentially dramatic than the death of a poor child, and while there are several such events throughout, Boo highlights the child and their life rather than using their death as an opportunity to get on a soapbox and argue for reforms. Children die in this book, but they also work, laugh and joke with each other, too, making them relatable and human instead of turning them into just another statistic.
It is not a pretty picture of human existence, nor is it a particularly hopeful one, but it is a well-told, compelling, insightful, and visceral look at an easily ignored subject. ...more
“If there’s one thing more exciting than gardening, it’s reading a book about gardening,” No One Ever once said. And yet, for reasons that are unclear“If there’s one thing more exciting than gardening, it’s reading a book about gardening,” No One Ever once said. And yet, for reasons that are unclear to me, the Man Booker committee put this incredibly slow, long, boring book about a Japanese gardener in Malaysia teaching an unwilling pupil and former Japanese prisoner about gardening – and life, of course – on the 2012 shortlist.
The book’s main selling point seems to be that it’s by a Malaysian writer and it covers several decades of Malaysian history, most notably the World War II-era Japanese prison camps and the post-war time known as the Emergency, when gangs of Communist guerrillas roamed the countryside, killing random people on the regular. Thus, if you pick up this book, you can appear Totally Open-Minded And Into Other Cultures, and you can force a few random references to Malaysia into all your conversations to prove that. You can also indulge an Asian fetish for the Zen experience of Japanese gardening (which is revered to comedic proportions), the history of tattoos in Japan (including preserving them after death), and the weird submissive, screaming-daddy-issues relationship the narrator has with the emperor’s former gardener.
Still not sold? Then how about a bunch of wooden, one-dimensional characters who tell long, exposition-heavy stories to other one-dimensional characters about Malaysian history, Chinese traditions, their role in World War II or the Boer War, and South African history; a prisoner of war camp story involving sex and violence but still manages to be boring; and a plot that seems to realize it’s spent way too much time talking about herons flying and thus packs like eight twists into the last several pages? Still no? Good choice. ...more
There are few things less enjoyable than poorly-written satire, and there are few time periods less interesting to set a book in than the very recentThere are few things less enjoyable than poorly-written satire, and there are few time periods less interesting to set a book in than the very recent (past decade or so) past. This book manages to combine both of these for a result that’s just as crappy as you’d imagine. It’s satire with all the subtlety of “Goofus and Gallant.”
The plot is simple: a small band of soldiers from Bravo squad (which is a misnomer, but that just shows the MEDIA DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THE MILITARY!) who responded heroically in a firefight in Iraq, and who had a video of that response that went viral, making them wildly popular heroes, are on the final day of a two-week Victory Tour in Dallas, where they are attending the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game before shipping back to Iraq, because football + Thanksgiving + Texans = super ‘Merica. The soldiers don’t really know what they’re doing there, because they aren’t told (see, man – it’s JUST LIKE THE WAR ITSELF!), and so they just sort of meander around, drinking a lot and having a bunch of really rich, stupid Texas stereotypes (doing everything but yelling “Yee-haw!” while firing six-shooters into the air and jangling their oil-covered spurs) tell them how proud they are of them, and how much they support the war, and how they all know President Bush. Because a decade or so later, it’s incredibly trenchant to note that rich Texans had a lot of influence with Bush and Cheney. (It’s time for me to fast track my book about how Deep Blue Something may not be the hit machine that “What About Breakfast at Tiffany’s” song might have had us believe.)
Our protagonist, Billy Flynn, is the 19-year-old soldier who played a key role in the fight, and despite his lack of formal education, he’s constantly disappearing into lengthy interior monologues referencing Sumerians and Turkmen and words like “homogenous,” monologues in which he muses about America and things like how football players have, like, so much equipment and stuff, and sometimes jackets are expensive, and how America’s like one big mall with a country attached, man, and other such insights that would get you laughed out of a freshman sociology class at Antioch.
In the meantime, the men of Bravo are working with a Hollywood producer who’s trying to sell their story who keeps coming over with stupid updates like “Hilary Swank’s interested now!”, which just leads Billy to have more stupid, second-grade-level thoughts about how Hollywood’s built on lies and stuff, man, more fake than real! It’s supposed to satirize the American public and what it means to support the troops, but forced ridiculousness like involving the soldiers in a halftime show featuring Destiny’s Child or having Billy and a Cowboys cheerleader fall in love in a five-hour period is a plot device I might expect in one of the lesser episodes of “Perfect Strangers,” not in a novel that’s getting rave reviews across the board and being compared to Catch-22. If you want clever satire and something enjoyable to read, skip this and pick up anything Evelyn Waugh ever wrote instead.
But, Ben Fountain, way to tell us that the Iraq war is bad, and to stick it to President Bush 10 years after that mattered. That’s powerful stuff. ...more
All right, we get it, Junot Diaz. You’ve got a fun, energetic style, and we don’t know any other Dominican writers, so you can keep writing about suciAll right, we get it, Junot Diaz. You’ve got a fun, energetic style, and we don’t know any other Dominican writers, so you can keep writing about sucios and morenos and we’ll keep applauding because it’ll seem culturally insensitive to say that, after three books largely focused on your thinly-veiled alter ego, Yunior, it’s time you tried something new.
In his previous two works, “Drown” and the Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Yunior was a dorky outcast more likely to read Lovecraft than find love, which helped to defuse the inherent sexism of his machismo-infused raps. Now, he’s all grown up, and without the sweetness of his awkward teenage dorkiness, his relationships and near-constant infidelities (and subsequent attempts to reminisce about those ruined relationships) just come off as offensive. Do we really feel bad for the cheater? Do we need to revisit characters from “Wao” to narrowly focus on love/sex/machismo, ruining the best part of that novel, which was its broad scope? I didn't.
Sure, this book has its moments of brilliance, where Diaz gets a great rhythm going, or writes a particularly evocative sentence or description, but those moments were far and few between. I understand that authors get stuck on a character (Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom), but what reviewers who cite those books to excuse Diaz forget is that those authors wrote other books involving other characters. Since 1996, Diaz has managed two slim books of stories and a novel, all of which essentially are just about Yunior. I enjoyed “Drown” a great deal, “Wao” a little less so (too many Lovecraft/comic book references), but this book just felt like a stale retread of those better works. It was the “What’s Happenin’ Now” to the previous “What’s Happenin,’” I suppose, if “What’s Happenin’ Now” was pretty damn sexist and made one feel kinda icky for reading it. ...more