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Drown by Junot Díaz
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's review
Sep 08, 2011

liked it

There are some things all people know are wrong. One of them, to me, is hitting people over the head with an empty glass bottle, which is why Drown lost me pretty early on.

In about half of this short story collection, we see about that level of brutishness. Children acting like grown thugs. Thugs that we're supposed to feel for. It's that sort of book where you're supposed to feel for characters like that, because they grew up rough. They were poor. There weren't the right opportunities because of their race.

I just couldn't do it.

From the continually foul-mouthed pair of Yunior and his brother Rafa administering the aforementioned beating, to Aurora, the story of a violent, drug-and-abuse-riddled relationship, to the arbitrarily homophobic title story, in which Yunior has the oh so relate-able problem of trying not to be recognized by people he deals drugs to while on the bus with his mother, all I see are people making horrible choices in unsympathetic ways. For me to accept this as "life on the streets" is to accept a stereotype, and it's a stereotype that these stories seem imbued with, whether Yunior is insisting that he truly loves Aurora and wants a normal life with her before he beats her bloody, or whether he's more laid back as in "How to Date a Browngirl...," which while amusing is ostensibly fluff and pretty dramatically full of ludicrous stereotyping.

Where Diaz shines in this collection is when we see Yunior not as a young thug, but as human. In "Fiesta, 1980," all the family dysfunction is there, but there is both a poignancy to be found in the by turns humorous and pitiable piece. In "Edison, New Jersey," we see Yunior still living a rough life, but aspiring to more, and at least having glimpses of a matured, settled future. "Negocios," the closing piece, is a deftly written account of Yunior's father's adventures in America between leaving his family and finally coming back for them. We see much of the same things we later see in Yunior's life... the questionable ethics and choices, the rough living... the underbelly that allows us to really get a feel for the "culture clash" that Diaz surely wants to underline in his stories. "Negocios" is easily the best piece in the collection, and that is in large part due to it finally doing literately what many of the other stories were too steeped in thuggishness to pull off.

There are some great moments here, to be sure, but they seem to come too late. By the time "Ysrael" and "Aurora" finish, Yunior is almost impossible for me to like or root for. His dialect, with its weak grammar and frequent Spanish slang, does less to set character and more to hammer home a stereotype, as if a Hispanic youth can be nothing but ignorant, violent, vulgar, and mixed up in the wrong company. Every story from there on out has to overcome the stereotype, and while some certainly still have a lot to offer, it is still too hard most of the time to get past it. There are some things all people know are wrong, and to me, giving Yunior an easy pass on these things is implying that all young, poor, or Hispanic people are simply like that. That's not a blanket I feel comfortable unfolding.
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