Manning the barrios
Geoff Dyer says yo to a new writer from the Dominican Republic
Saturday 12 October 1996
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.
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