Robert Spillman reviews Junot Diaz's novel "Drown".

By Robert Spillman
Published September 5, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

With recent stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and "Best American Stories," Junot Diaz has been hyped as the next young gun of American fiction. With his bare-knuckled prose ("That's the way it is. They built these barrios out of bad luck and you got to get used to that.") and tough, grim settings, Diaz works the same emotional landscape as early Jerzy Kosinski and Thom Jones. And like Jones and Kosinski, Diaz's work mainly consists of thinly veiled autobiography.

The 10 stories in "Drown" tell of his impoverished, fatherless youth in the Dominican Republic and his struggle with immigrant life in New Jersey. Diaz has a precise eye for pain, rendering the suffering of the dispossessed with clinical accuracy. In the stories "Ysrael" and "No Face," Diaz tells of a boy whose face has been horribly disfigured by a pig and how he is tormented by the kids of the village. But Diaz also has a wry touch, as in "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie," where the teenage narrator living in the projects gives a lesson in how to get laid by any kind of girl: "Dinner will be tense... A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement... Your brother once heard that one and said, 'Man, that sounds like a whole lot of Uncle Tomming to me.' Don't repeat this."

The last story, "Negocios," points up this collection's one weakness. It is a chronicle of his father's immigration, remarriage and, finally, the rescuing of his children and first wife from their bleak life in the Dominican Republic. While the language, images and characters are well drawn, there's little sense of fiction -- little of the depth and breadth of Kosinski or Jones. These stories don't read like stories, but more like sociology or reportage, like firsthand New Yorker pieces of old. Diaz expertly captures the rage and alienation of the Dominican immigrant experience, but it will be interesting to see what he does if he turns his talent and indignation to true fiction.

Robert Spillman

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