‘Drown’ by Junot Díaz

Drown by Junot Díaz, 1996

The magic trick:

Hinting and suggesting and suggesting and hinting before finally addressing the story’s elephant in the room at the end

This is the one. This is the story to read if you are having any lingering doubts about this Junot Díaz fellow. This is a truly remarkable story.

If all that was here was a brilliant picture of immigrant life in New Jersey, it’d still be a great story. If all that was here was a beautiful portrait of a strained but touching relationship between mother and son, it’d still be a great story. If all that was here was a pained profile of a young man getting caught up in the undertow of life’s monotony, it’d still be a great story. If all that was here was the tale of a youthful friendship gone awry, then it’d still be a great story. But of course it is all of the above and much more. It contains a novel’s worth of ideas and emotions in only 20 pages.

The thread that ties it all together is the narrator’s confusion over the occasionally sexual nature of an old friendship. It haunts him like a ghost he doesn’t want to let go of. And it’s just so well drawn by Diaz. You get the sense that this might be the case early on, but for the first three-quarters of the story, it’s never directly addressed. Only hints and suggestions. And I think that would’ve been fine had it remained that way. The story could have played out with that entire issue left in the shadows. As noted above, there are plenty of other things happening in the story to fill that void. But it isn’t left as a suggestion. The narrator goes there. He brings it up, finally near the end. The elephant in the room acknowledged at last.

It’s a remarkable bit of writing. One, it confirms to the reader that, yes, that is what has been looming over this entire story. But by having the narrator acknowledge near the end, it spotlights his reluctance to deal with the issue. It’s a huge weight on his mind. It might even be a big reason he’s in this sort of arrested development right now in his life. It’s a huge deal to him – for whatever reason – and the way the story holds back and holds back some more and finally lets go illustrates the point perfectly. And that’s quite a trick on Díaz’s part.

The selection:

When I’m tired I wade through to the shallow end, past some kid who’s kissing his girlfriend, watching me as though I’m going to try to cut in, and I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, Fat Chiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

Shit, he said. Where did you learn that? I shrugged. Tell me. He hated when I knew something he didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.

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