Today is Samuel R. Delany’s birthday. Celebrate by reading this Delany essay we published April 5, 2019!
With time and tempests everywhere
To rafts of frail assumption cling
The saintly and the insincere;
Enraged phenomena bear down
In overwhelming waves to drown
Both sufferer and suffering.
—W. H. Auden, The Quest, XIX (The Waters)
Auden’s lines have often struck me as a slant reference to Théodore Géricault’s painting in the Louvre, The Raft of the Medusa (1818): [23.5 ft x 16.1ft]. Likely you know it. The poem is about the exaggerations of fishermen, telling about the one that didn’t get away—not a fish, but rather a boat to safety. The men in the painting are not only fishermen but also shipwrecked sailors crowding on a raft. The lines above might very possibly be taken as comments on a monstrously skillful, overstated painting by a twenty-seven-year-old who became famous because of it. The painting shows the moment when the possibility of rescue becomes visible to the remaining fifteen out of more than a hundred-fifty of the Medusa’s crew who have already perished—mostly by drowning, though some were actually eaten by their fellows. A brown-skinned African is the highest and the most heroic figure on the raft, who by the report, was the first to site the rescue ship Argus. On the near-side of the raft, a despairing father holds the drowned body of his adult son—according to the historical narrative associated with the painting. The picture sets up many allegorical resonances with aspects of Díaz’s narratives’ progression in Drown.
I cite such resonances, then, at the head of a reading of a book that, for many readers, comprises the controlled understatement, an exemplary set of narrative meditations which start with two brothers, the narrator and Rafa, who have been sent to the campo—the Dominican countryside—for the summer.
If they are within sight of the sea—and of course it surrounds the entire island—it doesn’t figure greatly in the text, other than as a barrier between Hispañola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and the United States.
In “Ysrael,” Drown‘s  opening story, the brothers are nine and twelve. Their first adventure is the most openly horrific; we watch the older brother torment a young man, Ysrael, a head taller than either of them, whose face, when he was an infant, was mutilated by a pig who “skinned it like an orange” (7), so that now he wears a full head mask or bag, to hide the scarring: The year before, the narrator recalls, he’d thrown a rock at Ysrael “and the way it bounced off his back I knew I’d clocked a shoulder blade” (14).
“His mask was handsewn from thin blue cotton fabric and you couldn’t help but see the scar tissue that circled his left eye, a red waxy crescent, and the saliva that trickled down his neck” (15).
“His left ear was a nub and you could see the thick veined slab of his tongue through a hole in his cheek. He had no lips. His head was tipped back and his eyes had gone white and the cords were out on his neck” (18/19).
At another point we watch Ysrael tell them to follow him, “wiping the spit from his neck” (17). These are the totality of language units that directly describe Ysrael’s face and the physical manifestations of his infantile injury.
At first, the cruelties heaped on Ysrael seem to be dispersed through the campo’s community of boys—but because of their outsider status the brothers are obliged to be more vicious to Ysrael than the locals. Paradoxically, Ysrael sees them as closer to the United States than anyone else, and thus associates them with the possibility of salvation which, if anything, makes him more vulnerable to their cruelties.
At the same time, a complex competition obtains between the brothers that works to escalate their harassment.
“Show us your face, we cried. Let’s just see it once” (15).
Ysrael is a twelve- or thirteen-year-old Jonah Hex—but with none of the near superpowers (or super luck) the comix hero maintains as a gun-slinging adult. For the rest, he’s a voice and a body either physically savaged, or running from the other boys’ teasing of (“coño, could he run”). Chief villain is Rafa, from whom the younger narrator is always trying to elicit some sign of humanity but receives instead only inflated braggadocio and cruelty. Rafa thinks he’s superior to the country people—that he has to show himself bigger, meaner, crueler, and more brazen; he tries to get over on their bus driver and cobrador (bus conductor)—and through sheer bravado, he succeeds. But when the narrator tries to get back with “You low-down pinga-sucking pato,” at an older passenger who touches him inappropriately, he gets his arm squeezed for his pains and told “You should watch your mouth” (12).
The landscape is beautiful but cruel to the relatively citified youngsters: the heat punches them “in the face” all day (6)—and Ysrael serves as another victim of excessive cruelty in this landscape in which they are interlopers. Ysrael thinks he’s supposed to get an operation—or a series of operations—from some American doctors: Rafa is sure that they will do nothing for the young man. Personally, he seems only to want to show his superiority over this creature of the country who tries to befriend them because they are from the land where the doctors are, but who, if anything, turn out to be crueler than the natural landscape which Rafa, at any rate, seems to hate and sees only as a place where he can exploit the weak and show his physical superiority over the disfigured boy.
From time to time above the campo, a single-prop plane scatters posters of wrestlers (or politicians) across the landscape. Ysrael is the scapegoat for the entire campo’s community of boys, and Rafa is clearly drawn to prove himself bigger and badder than the others; the local children’s fear gives Ysrael some protection, even as they chase and humiliate him.
Thinks the narrator: “Tío said that if we were to look on his face we would be sad for the rest of our lives…I had never been sad for more than a few hours and the thought of that sensation lasting a lifetime scared hell out of me” (9). By contriving to help Rafa remove Ysrael’s mask and look at him, the narrator opens himself up to his brother’s cruelty and the existence of evil in the world that is already a part of their family, a cruelty that masquerades as bravery, strength, and macho—and which, by the tale’s end, as the two brothers are getting ready to run away, the reader realizes that even by telling the story of their observation of Ysrael, the narrator has allied himself permanently to the extent that he wishes to be like his brother, to best his brother at their endless fighting before they ever reached the campo, before Rafa lies to and attempts to hustle the bus driver and the young bus conductor.
A line in the second story, “Fiesta, 1880,” describes a family Dominican party among whom Díaz basically paints the nature of the cultural clash that is the fundamental theme of the book.
The narrator is speaking: “Earlier that year, I’d written an essay for school: ‘My Father the Torturer,’ but my teacher made me write a new one. She thought I was kidding.” (p. 30). Presumably an Anglo, the teacher hasn’t seen Rafa back away from his father whenever the man gets mad enough to punish his other Yunior—to escape “collateral damage.” The distance between Yunior and Rafa has widened: Yunior is the younger, more intellectual child—but he’s the one who throws up every time he spends any time in the car: a sign of weakness their father, Ramón, finds impossible to tolerate.
At this point, the father has a mistress—a Puerto Rican woman everybody knows about—but the weakness has manifested itself in a way that sets Yunior even further apart from his own culture: his father will not let him eat anything if there’s any prospect of their having to drive anywhere afterward. Thus, at the party which provides the tale’s the central incident, Yunior—forbidden food—is already marked out as different from all the other children and adults. The father is the one who has the unquestioned power to starve his child at a social gathering without any explanation as to why.
The father takes each of his sons, now Rafa, now Yunior, to visit his “sucia” (mistress). Eight-and-a-half pages into the tale, when, at the party, Tío Miguel says that, in Santo Domingo the narrator would be having sex, already, and the boy responds: “So, Mami, when do I go visit the D.R?” and his mother tells him, “That’s enough, Yunior” (32). And for the first time in the book, our narrator has a name.
It also restructures our reading of the entire book. Either the narrator doesn’t remember his trip to the DR the previous summer, or the Rafa and the narrator we saw there were not the Rafa and the narrator at the party. Occam’s razor works to pull them together: He’s forgotten. The sadness he will feel for the rest of his life is buried in his body will trouble him unconsciously for the rest of his life—possibly it’s what is making him car sick every time he gets into his father’s car.
Does Yunior—as it certainly would seem—carry the name Ramón? That would justify the sobriquet. Rafa is the one who gets the father’s more or less approval. “I was the one who was always in trouble with my dad,” Yunior writes. “It was my God-given duty to piss him off, to do everything the way he hated….I still wanted him to love me, something that never seemed strange or contradictory till years later when he was out of our lives” (26/27). This basic Oedipal tension is the entrance a lot of readers have into Díaz’s work. Certainly it was mine. It also anticipates the ending of the final tale, “Negocios.”
The attitude toward the party is spelled out carefully before they take off. Mami has started out eager to go, but has gotten more and “anxious” about it in “her usual dispassionate way.” As the party time approaches, the sun slides “out of the sky like spit off a wall” (24). Neither brother wants to go. There’s a baseball game going on outside, and both would prefer to be playing. The desire is to beat them at their game and the Devil you know is already preferable to the one who is new, though it will turn out to be remarkably familiar when they arrive.
At the party, as the children sit to play a game of dominoes, Yunior and his partner, Wilquins (a boy who doesn’t speak), are soon getting the better of Rafa and one of the girls—and Rafa isn’t ready to be beaten by his younger brother. The story ends on what is almost a note of reconciliation: Mami and Papi are in the front seat, Rafa is in the back, leaning against his sleeping older brother who seems to have been successful in some sexual conquest. The parents seemed reconciled, and Yunior realizes he’s going to throw up and calls to his mother. They look back, and we recognize in their look that he’s become the element in their lives—all of them—that doesn’t fit, that troubles the smooth ride, that requires the pull over to the side and an open car door.
The third tale, “Aurora,” moves us beyond this pair of prologues of an insoluable childhood dilemma, and onto eight titled sub-sections. “Aurora,” it occurred to me on third or fourth reading, is both the title of the whole tale of tale three and the title of its opening seemingly untitled section.
One thing needs to be cleared up right away. Though “Aurora” is written in the first person, the story’s unnamed male narrator doesn’t feel to me like Yunior. He’s one of a pair of young men that sells drugs in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark who have scored a salable quantity of marijuana and are experiencing the munchies while they cut it up and bag it.
Cut is the name (or, more probably nickname) of one. The other is nameless and has a strung-out girlfriend named Aurora who shows up whenever the drugs do, and has on more than one occasion robbed him. (Cut was “not a fan of Aurora, he never gives me the messages leaves with him.”) Aurora is “six months out of Juvie,” which means she’s likely still sixteen.
Aurora spends the night—and the next morning when Cut wakes up, she’s gone through his pockets . . . again. The situation would be comic if it were not pathetic.
This dysfunctional pair—Cut and his lame sidekick—sell weed and heroin to their clients. (In my own drug experiences from probably twenty or so years before the period Díaz writes about, from the East Village in the middle 1960s, rarely were the two sold by the same people, but I never encountered any Dominican NJ dealers. Cross the river and a pass a decade or two, and I’ll accept that things change.) The only thing they don’t do is get caught.
Aurora isn’t so lucky. William Faulkner once described an optimist as someone who thinks things are so bad they can’t possibly get worse. The narrator of “Aurora” is a young man who functions as a foil for Yunior: someone for whom things are so much worse than they are for Yunior that a whole order of violence has become indistinguishable for him from the normal. The story’s a comedy so dark it’s impossible to crack a smile; one can only watch it unfold in a kind of numb awe. The other thing the text does in terms of the entire book is presage the thematic focus of the title story of the collection, a girl, worrying about her brother in the Navy, saying, “Don’t let him turn into no pato” [a homosexual] (58); recalling an exchange the young narrator had had with the man on the bus off in the campo back in “Ysrael,” to the man who tries to rub off a stain on his shorts but wants to feel him penis through the fabric:
You pato, I said.
The man kept smiling. You low-down pinga-sucking pato, I said. The man squeezed my bicep, quietly, hard, the way my friends would sneak me in church. I whimpered.
You should watch your mouth, he said (12).
In short, even with the potential child abuser, the young narrator doesn’t win the encounter. (By the middle of the next page, abandoned by Rafa, the boy whom we will come to know as Yunior, is in tears.)
In this world scored and scarred by cruelty, machismo, and stupidity, this appears to be the single recognizable value that persists: “Pato’s” are to be avoided. With “Aguantando,” story number four, we return to the family of Mami, Ramón, Rafa and Yunior: it’s written by the writer who described the beauty of the campo in “Ysrael,” for only a paragraph; only this time it’s about life not in the campo but in the town from which the boys are sent away.
“Aguartar”—to hold, to last, to endure.
“Aguantando”—a mode of endurance.
Another story in six sections, it’s the richest story so far in the collection. It isn’t a story of battling brothers—it’s about a deeply wounded child who, in a cruel and impoverished landscape, misses his father nearly to the point of psychosis. This time the mother goes away to visit the campo and returns; and, deprived of both parents, he almost loses his grip between fantasy and reality.
The story is more domestic and more dramatic than the three that precede it. It’s also a story that, in going over familiar material, deals with it from the point of view of what must be endured; this is a tale in which we see—and feel—the scars on the bodies that have endured rocket attacks in the days before the narrator was born.
The relationship between Rafa and Yunior seems far more supportive than it has in the two earlier tales. Now it’s Rafa who can read the letter from the father in the States, and not Yunior who “was nine and couldn’t even write my own name,” which isn’t the sense the first two tales leave us with. (But these are successive short stories, history itself appearing to shift slightly in each one.)
The story ends with a fantasy of his father’s return. It has all the warmth of a childhood daydream—and, as such, in terms of the stark realism of some of the other tales so far, carries with it a warning that it’s hard to see through, through his desperately wished-for fantasy.
The title story, “Drown,” is the least discussed of all the narratives in the book. Looking over half a dozen commercial reviews of the book when it first appeared, I found none that mentioned it. This isn’t usually the case with a story sharing the book’s title. It’s the most radical story in the book and the one that holds out the clearest image of a salvation almost thrown completely away. With four stories before it, and five stories after it, it’s almost as if the fifth tale, “Drown,” has somehow itself drowned among the others, like the naked corpse on the very back of the Medusa’s raft:
Yunior is living in his mother’s basement. His friend Beto has come to hang out with at home. Two years ago, they were both wild ruffians—
We were raging then, crazy the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps then challenged them to come out and stop us. Beto was leaving for college at the end of the summer and was delirious because of it—he hated everything about the neighborhood, the broken apart buildings, the little strips of grass, the piles of garden about the cans, and the dump, especially the dump (91).
—but something has happened to Beto between then (at the height of their friendship) and now: “He’s a pato now” (91)—a homosexual—but two years ago, he could still masquerade as a neighborhood tough.
He’s someone who might take interest in Gericault’s sensual portrait of the naked bodies, living and dead, on the margin of death in the painting epitomizing the romantic dilemma, above and beyond—or even because of—the intensity it lends to allegories it deploys.
The great mid-twentieth century short-story writer Theodore Sturgeon writes somewhere: “I hate a person who will try anything once but won’t try it three or four times to develop a taste for it.” In “Drown,” Yunior, in a display of honesty, tells us he’s tried something “Twice.” But “That’s it” (p. 103).
As a gay man, to me the Freudian theory of homosexuality still feels to me the best one: and when I read a story such as “Drown,” it’s the one I read it against. Says Freud, the infant begins as “polymorphous perverse”—sexually open to pretty much everything; but in early childhood, a series of social encounters scares the child out of their comfort with one sex or the other, more or less severely, leaving them more comfortable with the other in terms of sex.
Díaz hasn’t given us much in the line of a polymorphous childhood, but he’s given us the signs of machismo, the withholding of love, and the demonizing of the “pato”—and a rich picture of woman as prize and free laborer in the raising of children. There’s also a fair amount of suggestion about the different relationship Beto has with his own father: “Beto used to tell me” how he “would sit with his pops” and watch porn while the mother “spent the time in the kitchen” (104). What we don’t see is the nature of the technology on which these moments of intimacy are accomplished. But we have seen the proscription against sex with men set firmly in place, though we know in childhood it’s all but ubiquitous.
There’s a difference between the DR “south of the Cementerio National” and the “campo” (70). There’s a difference between the DR and New Jersey; there’s a difference between New Jersey and the Bronx. You can drown in any one of them, though—and the assumption is that most people do. But Beto’s message to his friend is: “You need to learn how to walk the world . . . There’s a lot out there” (102). There are tools for bettering yourself, and acceptance is one of them, and preventing yourself from drowning. That includes sexual acceptance—and that is a dangerous and difficult maze.
In many ways, “Drown” is the most stripped down story in the book so far. Beto’s family is a father, mother, and a single child—and in this tale, that’s all shown of the (once again) unnamed Yunior.
The father in “Drown” is a very diminished shadow of Ramón from the earlier stories. Before the “sex” scene(s) in the tale, the narrator goes out with his boys, and they harass a pato in the parking lot by an unnamed fag bar, “which never seemed to close” (103). Among the boys in the car, “Eat me” (a euphemism for “blow me”) is all that the Alex driving and Danny in the back seat can offer. The power boundaries are in place, but shaky.
“Drown” comes to us from the last century—from the end of the nineties, indeed from twenty years ago. It feels like a brave story. Not so much a confessional but rather an assertion of cultural differences and difficulties. From the head of the story’s second page: “I wasn’t like him. I had a year to go in high school, no promises elsewhere” (92). For all their wildness, both the narrator and Beto remain in school.
Big brother Rafa is no longer the focus of male power—no longer destructive as in “Ysrael,” or supportive as in “Aguando.” In the case of both boys, the family unit itself has been much simplified. (Lucero, who rated a title position in “Aurora,” is a passing crack dealer with another drive-in dealer from Patterson.)
There’s competition between Beto and the narrator: for instance, when the narrator knows what the word “expectorating” means and Beto doesn’t. “He hated when I knew something he didn’t.” (The two boys are in the pool.) “He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries” (94). The sources of knowledge are to be rigorously guarded.
The story ends, however, not just with the rejection of sex, but with the rejection of both friendship and knowledge: “You can’t be anywhere forever, he used to say. What he said the day I went to see him off. He handed me a gift, and after he was gone, I threw it away, didn’t even bother to open it and read what he had written.”
There’s that disturbing reminiscence of Beto’s home life that comes as close to child abuse as heteronormativity might imagine, in terms of Beto’s father’s home use of pornographic tapes (they are in fact watching one of Beto’s father’s porn tapes and Yunior remarks): “His father was a nut for these tapes, ordering them from wholesalers in California and Grand Rapids. Beto used to tell me how his pops pop would watch them in the middle of the day, not caring a lick about his moms, who spent the time in the kitchen, taking hours to cook a pot of rice and gandules. Beto would sit with his pop and neither would say a word, except to laugh when somebody caught it in the eye or the face” (p. 104). Is this an accurate account, and what is it an accurate or inaccurate account of? Is the source of desire for this silent bonding of father and gay son over heteronormative pornography or gay pornography? What does it mean that the sex of “somebody” isn’t specified? Whatever the book contains, it has been contaminated by its source.
To what degree is this anecdote of female exclusion and male desire Beto’s, Yunior’s, or even Díaz’s? To what degree is it an exaggeration or a pathology? And does it matter what the images the ambiguous descriptions actually reference?
The gift here is seen to be polluted by the giver, by their socially demonized relationship. (“Mostly I stayed in the basement, terrified I would end up abnormal, a fucking pato” (104). He has neither Freud nor even a theory of supplementary itself to fall back on; not to mention the experience of commercial porn theaters in which, available in Newark or across the river in New York, alone or with his friends, to try out his own desires and explore his own body or the play of adolescent boys in groups in less socially constrained forms. (In what way does a “fucking pato” differ from a pato with no epithet?) He has, rather, one technological metaphor from a teacher “whose family had two grammar schools named after it,” who would compare them to the space shuttles: “A few of you are going to make it. But the majority of you are just going to burn out. Going nowhere. I could already see myself losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath me, hard and bright” (106).
This is where his associations have gone at the end of his and Beto’s second sexual encounter, when they’re almost discovered by an entering neighbor. The story leaves us, however, with the very clear sense that Beto may still be rising while the narrator, even as he basks in an after-orgasm fantasy, sees himself as burned out, falling, about to crash…or drown. Just as clearly, however, it isn’t the whole story.
A quartet of stories follows, before we reach the concluding novelette, “Negocios,” which, in my memory, is the richest tale. “Boyfriend” is the shortest. It’s a telling account of a single meeting between the narrator and a beautiful young woman who lives below him and who has broken up with her earlier boyfriend. And whom he gets to smile at him. It’s a vignette that could come from civilized Yunior’s life.
When I first read the collection, the tale that stayed (and stays) with me the clearest, however, was “Edison, New Jersey”—certainly because it was about someone with a job that fell within the social realm: delivering pool tables and card tables. The narrator works with an older delivery man, Wayne, who’s married to Charlene and on whom he cheats from time to time. The narrator’s Spanish is an asset to the company because many of the wealthy customers to whom they make their most profitable deliveries have Spanish speaking help.
The opening vignette describes the two workmen, the narrator and his older partner (“who takes this job too seriously” (121)). Wayne is pounding on the door. The narrator, however, takes a more philosophical approach and walks over to sit beside a drainage pipe and watch “a mama duck and her three ducklings scavenge the grassy bank” (121). This image of a mother duck and her three ducklings moving along the water as if on a single string may mask a bilingual pun: the Dominican term for homosexual, which has already been tossed around repeatedly in the text, is “pato,” which is the word for “duck,” which we have already encountered in the title story, when we learned that Yunior’s friend Beto is “a pato now” (91).
Is that what the “pato” without epithet becomes? A duck? An effeminized male? A duck as an image of a mother-led family? A recall of Beto? A recall of the accusation against the man on the bus in the in the Dominican campo (12), who seemed so much more powerful than the young Yunior bent on following his brother to gaze on a tragedy that would make him sad for the rest of his life (9)?
The narrator of story seven goes on to tell us that if the customers are not home when the deliveries are made, the deliveries are an orgy of small thefts (“cookies from the kitchen, razors from the bathroom cabinets…bubble bath drops” (123)) from the “Doctors, diplomats, surgeons, presidents of universities, ladies in slacks and silk tops who sport thin watches you could trade in for a car, who wear comfortable leather shoes” (122), who are their richest customers.
The woman wears a t-shirt that says “No Problem,” and is one of the least visible of Díaz’s characters—and whose dilemma, though it fuels the stories—is among the hardest to keep in mind. In short, the inarticulateness of her problem is a big problem indeed.
“Edison, New Jersey”’s narrator has a pay-day ritual: He calculates how long it would take him to buy one of the top-of-the-line Gold Crown pool tables he delivers. He figures two and a half years, “if I give up buying underwear and eat only pasta” (128). But even that’s inaccurate. He doesn’t manage money well enough, and knows it. The first time they try to deliver the Gold Crown pool table, nobody lets them. The boss “tore us for a good two minutes” (129), which I assume is a variant on the idiom “tore us a new asshole,” which is one my friends in their fifties are likely to use, but not those twenty years older—such as myself. Nevertheless it’s an idiom that has its sexual resonance with sodomy.
The idiom puts the person who’s being torn a new asshole in the position of the bitch, the woman, the whore—the one who is getting fucked, to cite another English equivalent. Your “pato,” your bitch. It’s a tale as memorable as Joyce’s “Counterparts” in Dubliners, and for much the same reasons.
The main incident of the story is that a young Dominican woman who is having some sort of tiff with man she works for wants to return to New York to see her mother and brothers, and the narrator agrees to take her there, over the bridge to the Dominican area of New York in Washington Heights—for which he ends up being late. Is she leaving for good? The first time they deliver the table, she doesn’t let them in. “A mama duck and three ducklings scavenge the grassy bank and then float downstream like they’re on the same string” on the first page present a symbol of the way those of us in society follow our parents, or bosses, both a family and a social image of falling in line with what’s expected.
The narrator goes so far as to joke about the two delivery men being thieves with customers who have to leave them alone and are nervous about it: “Just show us where the silver’s at. The customers ha-ha and ha-ha, and then agonize over leaving” (122-123).
The complexities of older technologies are what fascinate the narrator: “There are Inca roads in the Andes that even today you couldn’t work a knife between two of the cobblestones” (128). In short, there are two traditions at war here; one is an Amerindian tradition older than the United States, and the other is a new bastardized culture in which “patos” by definition are bad—misunderstood and European and relearned in the new ignorances that are always reforming in the spaces where old knowledge has been lost.
The woman’s body is described as a map of the world that has been/must be conquered: “an archipelago” of “tiny beautiful moles on her neck…leading down into her clothes” (133). The young woman’s boss/boyfriend is a bachelor, whom the narrator takes pleasure in discommoding (and would, presumably, even if they were not fighting over a woman who has become the symbol of the land (“I find an open box of Trojans beneath a stack of boxer shorts. I put one of the condoms in my pocket and stick the rest under his bed” (134).) Possibly this is why the woman is so hard to see.
What we can see, however, is that when they leave together, “She’s emptied his cupboard and refrigerator; the bags are at her feet” (136). Similarly, the narrator syphons off wealth from the system by theft, she’s syphoning off food for her family at home and—we will learn—be back again, for more. But through her sacrifice, she becomes hard to visualize as her own person: By taking the job with “C. Clarence Pruitt,” she’s put herself in a position where she can be mother to her own family back in New York City. “Traffic on the bridge is bad,” and she has to give him “an oily fiver for the toll” (p. 137).
The question of the story: Is Edison, New Jersey where they will go tomorrow (for it’s the closing words of the text (140) and it will be more or less the same?
“How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” is a nine-word title for the shortest story (six and a third pages) in the book, and for a while the best known. It’s in the second person—which makes it a tour de force. I am surprised at all the elements here that I remember from my own life in Harlem in the forties and fifties that applied to the Latino community in the 1970s: the parents driving their girls to the visit, the attempts to hide the signs of government subsidy. Although I haven’t checked, I assume a “malcriado” (143) is a “malingerer.” The story uses the term “fuckbuddy” (“Hey, Yunior, is that your new fuckbuddy?” (146)), a term that (a) originates with gay slang, and (b) one that’s always been far more common there, and, while appropriated, at the least suggests a desire for heteronormative behavior to be more like gay male behavior. I retain almost none of my high school Spanish—though I wanted to study it precisely because I thought it would be more helpful than Latin. And it wasn’t. I would have come out better for the writer I wanted to be if I’d taken Latin first then gone on to Spanish. (The further away she travels to get there, the less well you have to hide it.) The story begins with the exhortation “Wait for your brother and mother to leave the apartment,” (143); note that the brother is mentioned first. Note also that, in this tale, his memory is the source of political sophistication, not just emotional hardness: To the halfie’s history of her parents’ meeting back in the movement, the narrator recalls: “Your brother once heard that one and said, Man, that sounds like a lot of Uncle Tomming to me. Don’t repeat this” (146-47), certainly a notable change in his position in the previous tales. The revamping of the apartment has to be put back before moms comes home. “Put the government cheese back before your moms kills you” (p. 149); both the affectionate pluralizing of “moms” and her own commitment to the care of the family are now the terminal source of power, as she’s the origin now of both “you” and your brother.
With “No Face,” even the first-time reader who’s been working through the book suspects—and the multiple-time reader is sure—we are back in the campo, with Ysrael of the first story, this one almost eight pages. It’s several years later, and he’s older; by now, he has a younger brother, Pasao, who would seem to look up to him, though he’s still the town pariah. He’s been taught to read and write in preparation for his operation by the local priest, Lou or Father Lou (154) or Padre Lou (157), an operation still in the future. (Rafa said, we recall, that the doctors will do nothing for him.) One thing that has happened in the interim is that Ysrael now meets with a community of youngsters who need operations—which to me seems to put him in a different position. He isn’t alone; as well, his little brother looks up to him, because he’s made himself notably stronger physically. And the story, from Ysrael’s point of view, is now much richer and seems far less despairing than the earlier tale. And the surface recomplications make it seem far more a story by the writer of “Aguantando” rather than of the opening two tales. The fantasy no longer falls from the sky, but arrives now with the possibility escape, of change, of new power. It’s an observed tale or an imagined one. It certainly feels nowhere as despairing. That itself gives the narrative a more positive flavor. There’s only one more left. On the horizon, however tiny, there is the image of a boat.
“Negocios”—a Latino term for “business” or “business dealings,” cognate with “negotiations”—seemed on my first reading the collection’s masterpiece. It’s the last and tenth tale in his first book, Drown.
In “Ysrael,” we encounter the phrase, “business is business,” which in Spanish might fall out as “Negocios son negocios” (11). “Negocios” is the story of Ramón de Las Casas, who, at twenty-four, leaves his wife, Virtudes, and their three children in the Dominican Republic before his youngest son’s fourth birthday and goes to the United States, where over the next few years, he acquires a second wife, Nilda, and has a second family. (With each wife, he has a son named Ramón.) When he decided to leave the Dominican Republic, he had a mistress whom he was abandoning, so that the move to the States and the promise to send for his family could somehow be read, at least in the minds of his father-in-law and perhaps some of the other men, as a commitment to family.
The youngest son is attempting to reconstruct the fiction of his father’s departure—and from other stories, we know that he has no actual memories of his father at all. This is very much a paradox of the text, of fiction itself.
In an article he published in the New York Times Book Review of April 4, 1981, the fourteenth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Guy Davenport published an article about the nature of historical fiction:
I chose a newspaper article of Kafka’s to rewrite, appropriating his title, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” and his sequence of events, which was merely a visit by Kafka and Max and Otto Brod to an exhibition of flying machines in 1903, and set out to imagine what could be made of these distant and unfamiliar things. What urged me on was knowing that I would get everything wrong, every detail, every emotion, every image. I would create by moving from mistake to mistake, so that the result would be a perfect blank if you compared it to reality (which can’t be done) or to that official fiction, history. Shakespeare probably never set foot in Scotland, but he knew how to imagine the rooks huddled on a tower at twilight.” (The Making of a Writer)
This is what Díaz and every writer who writes about things he didn’t witness and couldn’t have known first hand, is doing at the moment she or he starts to write fiction.
From earlier stories, we know Yunior has no memories of his father. Thus with the very first sentence, we are plunged in an imaginative attempt to create a possible life he wouldn’t, in any single detail, have known for sure, even though he more or less had a sequence of events, though even some of that may be uncertain. The sheer believability Díaz achieves makes it feel epic.
The emotional resolution of the tale is satisfying enough: Ramon, we will find out, is no longer living with either woman—is he with another or is he by himself, or does it matter? He looks enough like both his sons so that Yunior can recognize himself in a picture of his half-brother by his father and his father’s alternate wife. When he tells her he’s his father’s son, she says, “Hijo, I know who you are” (206).
I want to know more about the money, however: and, indeed, the entire technological web in which the tale is embedded. Presumably this meeting occurs within twenty-five or thirty-five years of Díaz’s birth in 1965. Sending money home from the U.S. to Europe in the twenties and thirties or fifties or sixties to bring a family over was a specific process in each case and in each country; the fact is, when I began this piece, I wasn’t sure if the Dominican Republic uses American dollars, or its own currency, and what the situation of changing money is: arbitrage—the international movement of money—has always been one of the most profitable businesses on the planet, and exists because radio and telegraph signals move faster than the mails. I know that there are and were Dominican pesos, and realize that the changing of them into dollars and back is all but elided from the story.
Travelers checks were a hugely profitable enterprise for American Express, and I used them for my first couple of trips to Europe until I realized that my luggage was far more likely to be stolen than I was to be physically robbed and so I started carrying cash and my passport on my body. “Never change money at the airport, because that’s where you will get the worst exchange rates,” was the travel Mantra for fifties and sixties travelers, and immediately opened the traveler at whatever level up to a host of defining experiences.
In Europe, the exchange rates for foreign currencies were listed in the windows of most European banks before you went in (they went up and down daily)—and never to be found publicly in American banks, which made European travelers here think we were monetary barbarians. To walk through the streets of any tourist area in a town on the continent was to be accosted by children calling to you, “Change money,” in several languages, for the black market in those years.
The result is I miss—as I have written in my criticism of another novel written in the times roughly contemporary with Díaz’s, though set in a future wholly different—the reality of how the money was moved. Having said that, we see some of it: Nilda lines her bra with twenty-dollar bills, or puts money into a plastic baggie and slips it into a soda bottle which she walks home drinking from with a straw, and manages to avoid being robbed. Ramón puts his money in a leather pouch inside his boxer shorts that actually blisters his thigh, which means he’s never robbed because this isn’t where robbers would be likely to search.
Still, I would have been happier with some textured fictive presentation of the money going from the Dominican peso to the American dollar, on Ramón’s trip to the States, starting with his first flight to Miami in c. 69, to the way it was handled when, from time to time, he sent money (Pesos? Dollars?) to Virtudes; in much the way I like a better view of the writing technology of 1993, ’94, ’95 when we might assume Negocio was written (see About Writing, Wesleyan, 2005, and the need for place-date descriptions, a practice I initially picked up from reading Ulysses in the fifties, and which I still hold will make a better writer out and thinker out of anyone, as it forces the writer to think about time and the changes it imposes).
The first section of “Negocios” is a scherzo on Ramón’s leaving his wife, family, and his mistress (“puta” (63), slut, whore, or bitch) for the United States. The progression of events here is complex: the father has been planning to leave for months. He’s supposed to be on patrol, because of a recent attack from the U.S. on Dominican Republic, in which his wife had learned what mustard gas smells like and sustained scars her children can feel through her clothing when they embrace her: this, we know from previous stories in the book. Ramón, however, moves in with a mistress, and only decides to leave at the advent of a dream where the money he’s been gathering for the trip, specifically from his father-in-law (who may think it’s a good idea to get rid of the shiftless young man in any case) “was spiraling away in the wind, like bright, bright birds. The dream blew him out of bed like a gunshot.” The language does something interesting here. The association with “wind” would seem to be the source of “blew” as in “the wind blew.” But “gunshot” makes us reread the sentence: this is the “blew” as in the past tense of “blow up,” or “explode.” That is to say, its source may well be the unmentioned attacks from the U.S. that has scarred his wife’s body, which we will only learn of later in the story.
Ramón must run to (and has been planning to run to) the thing that is attacking him, his country, his wife: this has been the paradox of many emigrants from Japan and various Muslim countries and, indeed, pretty much all post-colonial migrations to the seat of power, whether it be the influx of Muslims and Africans into England before and after the Great War or Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Haitians to the U.S. (D. H. Lawrence will use an infamous encounter between Katherine Mansfield and some black Africans students over a book of Lawrence’s poems (Amores) at the Café Royal for The Sisters and rewrite out their race in the final version of Women in Love to universalize the incident and, incidentally, to erase the racism for future readers.) By the same token, Díaz is trying to return the insufferable paradox back to center stage.
Ramón borrows “a clean mustard-colored guayabera” (shirt (164)) and “put himself in a concho” to his wife’s father (“abuelo”—literally “grandfather,” but in Spanish once his daughter has children, he’s the family’s grandfather; and the narrator of the story is, remember, his grandson). A “concho” is a car used for public transportation—much like the “dolmush” of Istanbul. In the Dominican Republic, it can also be a public motorbike. But because Ramón gets “in” it, we can assume it’s a closed vehicle.
The opening paragraph of the final scene is a cascade of known information (presumably) on top of the epic feat of realistic imagination we have just read. “Years later Nilda and I would speak, after he had left us for good, after her children had moved out of the house. Milagros had children if her own and their pictures crowded on tables and walls. Nilda’s son loaded baggage at JFK. I picked up the picture of him with his girlfriend. We were brothers all right, though his face respected symmetry.”
Ramón de las Casas is no longer in either family’s life, Nilda’s or Virtudes’. The younger of his two families are now into their adulthood. The maternal fecundity of her daughter’s family has taken up most of Nilda’s procreative attentions. But the male strain that goes back to his father shows clearly in both photographs and the flesh.
The most dramatic sub-incident in the closing scene is her account of his father’s precipitous defection: She ends with a statement of her own pain when she wakes and realizes that he’s really gone. Then she says something that humanizes her, greatly: “I thought that I would never stop hurting, I knew then what it must have been like for your mother. You should tell her that.”
In the penultimate paragraph, we learn that the act of going back to get his first family is full of subterfuge. Ramón doesn’t tell Nilda he has two weeks off from work and will be utilizing it to leave her and bring his first family to the States. He’s already located where he’s going to put his old family, and, with a shirt or two and some underwear, he’s “smuggling himself out of Nilda’s life” (205). Again, the imagined details make it easy to visualize. The rise in the cost of cigarettes and reliance on cartons instead of packs (but sold at a stand—which I read as a news kiosk: That isn’t my memory: that would have to be at a grocery, a bodega, a colmado) is something that it’s easy to remember.
In our society, relationships are supposed to be luxuries. They would even appear to require some state support. They have to be mutually supportive associations of labor and psychological compatibility. What allows them to work is equal rights dispersed across unequal strengths and personal assets. Ramón is a father who wants to live beyond his means, and it produces pain and abandonment in both his families—and the duplicities through which he contrives to have more than his share eventually produce a situation where neither family is living with him and if he’s living with anyone, we do not know.
“We caught jaivas [crabs] in the streams and spent hours walking across the valley to see girls who were never there; we set traps for jurones [crawfish] we never caught and toughened up our rooster with pails of cold water. We worked hard at keeping busy” (4).
Chiclets and chewing gum. [Two forms of chewing gum, the first in small squares with a hard sugar shell, in a box of ten or so. The boxes were yellow and green, which were flavored with wintergreen, were green. Often there was a cellophane window through which to see the actual white or green squares. Gum, or “chewing gum,” came in a rectangular package of six, two and half inch strips, half an inch wide, each individually wrapped in silver paper with a wax paper lining. I remember Chiclets very well (as well as the Crane invented “life saver.”) My twenty-seven-year-old assistant knows about chewing gum but Chiclets have fallen out of his knowledge circle.]
cobrador—collector or conductor (as on a train or trolley).
pato—duck (faggot) cf., “Edison, New Jersey,” cf. when the narrator sits outside and watches a mother duck swim past him, following by three ducklings.
I wonder how “pato” (duck) became the term for a queer, and where, in the midst of all this, the female homosexuals are dealt with in Latino languages in general and Dominican Spanish specifically.
Auden, W. H. “The Quest XIX.” Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, 295. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Díaz, Junot. “Aguantando.” Drown, 67-88. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Aurora.” Drown, 45-65. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Boyfriend.” Drown, 109-117. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Drown.” Drown, 89-107. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Edison, New Jersey.” Drown, 119-140. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Fiesta, 1980.” Drown, 21-43. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or a Halfie.” Drown, 141-149. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Negocios.” Drown, 161-208. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “No Face.” Drown, 151-160. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Díaz, Junot. “Ysrael.” Drown, 1-20. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Géricault, Théodore. “The Raft of the Medusa.” Artble. 2017. http://www.artble.com/artists/theodore_gericault/paintings/the_raft_of_the_medusa
 Auden W. H., “The Quest XIX,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 295.
 Théodore Géricault, “The Raft of the Medusa,” Artble, 2017, http://www.artble.com/artists/theodore_gericault/paintings/the_raft_of_the_medusa
 Junot Díaz, “Ysrael,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 1-20.
Junot Díaz, Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).
 Junot Díaz, “Fiesta, 1880,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 21-43.
 Junot Díaz, “Aurora,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 45-65.
 Junot Díaz, “Drown,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 89-107.
 Junot Díaz, “Negocios,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 161-208.
 Junot Díaz, “Boyfriend,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 109-117.
 Junot Díaz, “Edison, New Jersey,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 119-140.
 Junot Díaz, “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 141-149.
 Junot Díaz, “No Face,” Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 151-160.