YAY! I finally read this book! Although I’ve been nursing a serious crush on Junot for many years now (y’all think I love Franzen? He ain’t got nothin’ on Junot!), I’ve never read Drown cover to cover. Sure, I’ve read or listened to several of the stories over the years. I’ve also listened to Junot read “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” via a New Yorker podcast (you can get that for free on iTunes). But I’ve never just sat down and read the whole thing at once. I was dying to bust it out earlier last year, but ultimately decided it was the book I wanted to end 2010 with. I was not disappointed.
Drown is a collection of ten short stories set in poverty-stricken areas of the Dominican Republic, the Bronx, and New Jersey. Immigrant narratives play a big role in Drown and provide the backdrop for the larger themes of loss, family, love, and longing.
The majority of the stories are unrelated to one another, although there a couple of characters who reappear towards the end of the book. Drown begins with “Ysrael,” a memorable story about two brothers who are sent to live with relatives for the summer. They encounter a boy whose face was eaten by a pig when he was a baby, and they proceed to bully him. Readers meet the disfigured boy again later on in “No Face.”
My favorite story was the last one, “Negocios.” It begins in the Dominican Republic with a father leaving his family behind to look for work in the United States, promising to send for them once he’s settled in and has enough money. The narrator is his son, who was almost four years old at the time his father left. It’s a beautifully-crafted story about mistakes in life, broken promises, and a son longing for his father.
The writing in Drown is unembellished and vivid; the overall impact is powerful. I also love how the heavy themes are broken up by occasional humor. From the title story, “Drown”:
We live alone. My mother has enough for the rent and groceries and I cover the phone bill, sometimes the cable. She’s so quiet that most of the time I’m startled to find her in the apartment. I’ll enter a room and she’ll stir, detaching herself from the cracking plaster walls, from the stained cabinets, and fright will pass through me like a wire. She has discovered the secret to silence: pouring café without a splash, walking between rooms as if gliding on a cushion of felt, crying without a sound. You have traveled to the East and learned many secret things, I’ve told her. You’re like a shadow warrior.
And you’re crazy, she says. Like a big crazy.
Junot is fantastic at crafting short stories (if you can get your hands on “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”, do it). His words leap off the page for me, and even though I’m Mexican-American, there is always something I can culturally relate to in his work. I’m actually mad at myself for waiting this many years to properly read the whole book.
I went to a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square after Oscar Wao came out. I remember that was my first week working as an English adjunct, and getting to meet one of my favorite authors was the icing on the cake. Having spent my first post-Master’s degree year working part-time in a copy center for minimum wage, everything in my life finally felt perfectly aligned.
Junot is one of the nicest authors I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Rather than sitting at the table signing books, he stood the entire time so he could talk to people face to face. He was hugging and kissing people and engaging in conversations with everyone. Of course, since I’m madly in love with him I acted like a total idiot (I cringe to think of how earnestly I said, “I love your book”). When I first stepped up to him he did a double take, and the first thing he told me was that I had a beautiful smile. We chatted for a while. Drown was the last book in my small stack of things for him to sign, and I saw him scribble something in it other than his signature. I didn’t look at it until I was out of the store:
I smiled as I bought some falafel and ate it in the park. I smiled as I sat and people-watched for a while. I smiled the whole way home.
I’m smiling now.