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Eating to America

book cover
Junot Díaz's stories give a pungent taste of the immigrant experience

By Junot Díaz
Riverhead Books; 208 pages; $21.95 cloth

Reviewed by Andrew X. Pham

THE CHEESE, the inescapable government cheese (huge rectangular blocks of orange-yellow goo), colored my immigrant childhood. In this cheese and its alien flavors was mystery. In it was wealth and poverty, and a vast disparity I had only began to fathom. I treasured it, and I loathed it, and I was awed by it and ashamed of it, all the while harboring against it every contradictory emotion unique to poor immigrants.

One of the first things they gave my family when we arrived in America was a brick of cheese as long as my arm and as heavy as a watermelon. I didn't know what it was at first, but I was awed by the wealth and the generosity of America. In time, I learned to grill cheese sandwiches and even to like them.

Then I learned that only the poorest partook in this bounty. At the ridicule of classmates, I learned to hate it. Yet it was one of the few edible things in the house. So, even now the mere sight or smell of it still stirs some residual aversion in me.

Some of this peculiar angst finds an adept echo in a short story by Junot Díaz: "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie." A young immigrant living on the seamier side of town rehearses the strategy for dating girls of various colors and social classes. Since the seduction scene takes place in the family apartment when the clan is out, he believes success hinges on the temporary disappearance of the government cheese from the refrigerator. The girl must not see it, and his mother must not miss it when she returns. There is more here than meets the eye.

Other immigrants' woes also resonate in Díaz's short stories. Every immigrant has a personal story, pains and joys, fears and victories, and Díaz portrays much of his own hardscrabble immigrant life in Drown, a collection of 10 short stories.

Boys and young drug dealers narrate eight of these tales. Their struggles shift from life in the barrios of the Dominican Republic to grim existence in the slums of New Jersey. But, always, the voice is uniform. The sentiments as well as the observations jump off the page as extensions of the author, only from different angles--so much so that the stories appear very much autobiographical.

In that light, Díaz dedicates the book to his mother and fills many of tales with the anger and pain of a fatherless childhood. In "Aguantando," he writes of life as a 9-year-old in the Dominican Republic without a father. The title short story follows a young dope pusher living alone with his mother. In "Negocios," the narrator traces the life of his father, who abandoned his family in the Dominican Republic for nine years, only to work and remarry in the United States.

A JITTERY sense of suspense impregnates this collection. The nervous waiting that wracks the stories is best distilled by the narrator in "Drown." At the end, as their lives tumble inevitably toward catastrophe, the young drug dealer sums up, with a sort of wistful blindness, the situation between him and his crack-head girlfriend: "[We] seemed like we were normal folks. Like maybe everything was fine."

It seems as though for the immigrants, even when things are at their best, a high probability of calamity looms just around the corner. Uncertainty is the only certainty for these outsiders, who live in communities that are "separated from all the other communities by a six-lane highway and the dump."

Díaz doesn't necessarily see things, as critics think it vogue to say, "with a journalist's dispassionate eye." It is more accurate to say he recalls his childhood with the natural poetry of a child--simple, not judgmental and often without shame. The clichéd inner-cityscape passes through his lens as a fresh but familiar world:

    We head down a road for utility vehicles, where beer bottles grow out of the weeds like squashes. The Hacienda is past this road, a house with orange tiles on the roof and yellow stucco on the walls. The boards across the windows are as loose as old teeth, the bushes around the front big and mangy like Afros.

It isn't simply pretty prose; first-generation immigrants don't perceive poverty in the same light as the native-born. American slums pale beside the Third World's destitution. Yet Díaz never loses sight of the telling details of immigrant life stateside. He describes food from the perspective of a Dominican boy who eats only boiled yucca and platano and, in the latrine, routinely watches "long gray parasites slide out from between [his legs]."

Then he writes about everyone, immigrants included, gorging themselves into obesity in America. This simple abundance of food flames the imagination of immigrants, enduring for many years as the newcomer's fascination with the golden land.

THE BEST THING about Díaz's prose is its tightness. He industriously prunes, clips and reworks his words to achieve the stinging jabs of highly polished script. Not much in the way of fat hampers these stories, and the characters step out of the plots vibrantly real, unfettered by excess and empowered with Díaz's command of the spoken language of his world.

Still, a few details jar, and Díaz's use of borrowed styles sometimes grates--for example, from hard-boiled pulp: "We're all under the big street lamps, everyone's the color of day-old piss. When I'm fifty this is how I'll remember my friends: tired and yellow and drunk."

The how-to gimmick in "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie" hamstrings what could have been a prize story, and sometimes Díaz goes over the top with images like "the sun sliding out of the sky like spit off the wall."

What I do like about Drown is Díaz's graceful ability to extract and dramatize the tragedies of immigrants without soaking everything in melodrama, the lifeblood and crutch of this genre. As an immigrant who shared some similar experiences as a young stranger in a strange land, I find the nuances of his narrative accurate. Drown offers a dignified and sensitive slice of immigrant life that will whet America's terminal nostalgia for a time when we were all immigrants.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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