Manning the barrios

Geoff Dyer says yo to a new writer from the Dominican Republic

Drown by Junot Daz, Faber, pounds 7.99

The epigraph, from Gustavo Perez Firmat, provides a blueprint of the foundations on which these resourceful, occasionally shaky fictional structures are built: "The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don't belong to English though I belong to nowhere else."

Junot Daz was born in the Dominican Republic and then moved to the States. His first book of loosely linked stories is about boys growing up in the barrios of Santo Domingo, and men struggling to make ends meet in New Jersey. On arrival in America one of Daz's characters is "impressed with the transplanted Latinas, who had been transformed by good diets and beauty products unimagined back home"; likewise, few readers will be unimpressed by Daz's version of transplanted - as opposed to translated Spanish, flecked with and transformed by Hispanic expresiones.

A good proportion of the stories are narrated by the younger of two brothers whose father eventually emigrates to America, leaving them in a limbo of relief - no more beatings - loss and thwarted expectations. By adolescence, los boys - as Faber considered entitling the English edition before going with the American, Drowned - are fending for themselves, stealing and dealing: "an ounce of weed for the big guy with the warts, some H for his coked-up girl, the one with the bloody left eye. Everybody's buying for the holiday weekend. Each time I put a bag in a hand I say, Pow, right there, my man."

A character in the story "Boyfriend" is derided for his cheap "Rico Suave routine" and while instantly alluring, this kind of linguistic riff energetic Barrio Hip - is less testing, less exacting, than passages patiently tracing the gestures which define the son's awkward, tender relations with his abandoned mother: "I pull out the plug of bills from my pockets. She takes it from me, her fingers soothing the creases. A man who treats his plata like this doesn't deserve to spend it, she says." Describing his friends, on another occasion, as looking "the colour of day-old piss" is actually piss-poor writing: "piss" on its own would be pretty unstartling, "day- old" makes it as stale as the cooling zephyrs of arcadia.

These are quibbles, really, for much of the language and many of the observations - "fake plants relaxed in each room" - are fresh and unforced. Especially in the last, longest and best story, "Negocios".

Hated, loved and feared by his son, appealed to as a standard of lapsed morality, the absent father gets this story to himself. By ending the book like this Daz makes good another absence. The earlier pieces deployed themselves obliquely, seemed always to be approaching some definitive irresolution. Whereas in this story, which focuses unflinchingly on the figure who was not around when he was needed - and who, in "Fiesta 1980", did not like his son to look him "in the eye" while he was giving him a whupping - we move, finally, into the substantiality of thoroughly achieved narrative. This is it, the defining tale, of migration, struggle, exploitation and partial assimilation which, as it were, accounts for all the others. The story of the father's difficult transition to a larger, more challenging world is also, appropriately, a demonstration of how the writerly skill and promise displayed earlier in the book are already giving way to the sustained ambitions of the mature novelist-to-be.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created