Saturday, March 16, 2024

Junot Diaz's stories - not just Oscar Wao - are well worth reading and cherishing

Ever since I read Junot Diaz’s 2007 masterpiece The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, which I named my 59th favorite novel of all time and which was given the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Wao is about the experience of the Dominican community in Paterson, New Jersey, specifically Yunior and his friend Oscar, who is teased for looking like Oscar Wilde.

Diaz was born in 1968 and moved to New Jersey when he was seven. I’ve wanted to dig deeper into the Dominican American author’s work and now I have. This is what I learned:

He hit it big when his collection of 10 stories, Drown, was released in 1996. “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” is an acclaimed story from that book. It begins in eye-catching form as a boy in the projects pretends to be sick so he doesn’t have to go with his mom and brother to see his aunt “who likes to squeeze your nuts” and say “it’s gotten big.” Once alone in the apartment, the narrator runs off a litany of how to entertain any type of girl he has invited over during this calculated time. Nothing much happens in this story but it’s entertaining. 4 out of 5 stars.

Also from Drown are “Ysrael” and “Fiesta, 1980,” which were in The Best American Short Stories of 1996 and 1997 collections.

“Ysrael,” the title character, is a disfigured boy who wears a mask on his face. The other characters, a couple of young brothers named Rafa and Yunior (Yunior is a recurring character who appear in many of Diaz's stories and is Diaz's alter-ego) go about their days doing kid stuff in a barren and bullying landscape. They all talk of making it to New York, where their fathers are located, and Ysrael says he is going to go get his face fixed right before Rafa slams a bottle over his head for no apparent reason. The story ends with the reader not knowing if he’ll ever get that operation or if he’s even still alive. As often happens in Diaz tales, not a lot happens, but it’s a gritty and interesting look into what life is like for lots of kids. 3 out of 5 stars.

“Fiesta, 1980” continues the story of Yunior and Rafa, as they go to a party with their family. Yunior irritates his father by doing his usual vomiting in the car, his dad takes him to his mistress’s place, and then his dad doesn’t allow him to have dinner at the party because he doesn’t want to have to clean up too much puke in the car later. Like with most Diaz tales, this one is a series of everyday vignettes, but there is a vibrancy that adds a layer of entertainment and a glimpse into the Dominican American experience. 4 out of 5 stars.

His 2012 collection called This is How You Lose Her includes Yunior again and is nine interlocked stories, with the first two - “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” and “Nilda” - included in The Best American Short Stories of 1999 and 2000 collections. 

I love “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.” It’s one of the best ultimate-breakup short stories I’ve ever read. Yunior cheats on Magda with Cassandra, who sends Magda a letter telling her. Y and M try to repair things with a trip to the Dominican Republic. Adventures ensue, as Yunior falls in with a couple of rich guys, but the journey doesn't repair the faded love. Those aren’t spoilers, just read it, you’ll be a Diaz fan for life. 5 out of 5 stars.

“Nilda” is equally as great. Told through Yunior’s eyes, it’s the story of the 15-year-old girlfriend of his older brother Rafa. Yunior sits and reads comic books with Nilda, who is often at their house and secretly sleeps there because she is homeless. Rafa is not a great dude but he treats her well. He breaks up with her after finding out he has cancer and he soon dies. Yunior runs into Nilda from time to time and the last time he sees her it’s at the laundromat before he heads off to college. 5 out of 5 stars.

But the most recent one I’ve read is “The Ghosts of Gloria Lara,” from The New Yorker’s November 6, 2023 issue. The narrator recalls growing up in New Jersey listening to the news, with his father’s love of Dominican Republic dictators Trujillo and Balaguer and his mother’s equal hatred of the two always punctuating the coverage. His mother’s brother Renaldo was the only communist in the family and got himself shot for trying to turn the D.R. into another Cuba. Then on D.R. Independence Day 1980, guerrillas attacked the D.R. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia and kidnapped ambassadors from a bunch of countries and held the embassy at siege for 61 days. Later, a man moves from Colombia to the narrator’s neighborhood and strikes up an odd friendship of sorts with the family. This is another good glimpse into the Dominican American experience, but really only just that, just good. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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