From the author of Drown (1996), more tales of Dominican life in the cold, unwelcoming United States.
Eight of the collection’s nine stories center on Yunior, who shares some of his creator’s back story. Brought from the Dominican Republic as a kid by his father, he grows up uneasily in New Jersey, escaping the neighborhood career options of manual labor and drug dealing to become an academic and fiction writer. What Yunior can’t escape is what his mother and various girlfriends see as the Dominican man’s insatiable need to cheat. The narrative moves backward and forward in time, resisting the temptation to turn interconnected tales into a novel by default, but it has a depressingly unified theme: Over and over, a fiery woman walks when she learns Yunior can’t be true, and he pines fruitlessly over his loss. He’s got a lot of other baggage to deal with as well: His older brother Rafa dies of cancer; a flashback to the family’s arrival in the U.S. shows his father—who later runs off with another woman—to be a rigid, controlling, frequently brutal disciplinarian; and Yunior graduates from youthful drug use to severe health issues. These grim particulars are leavened by Díaz’s magnificent prose, an exuberant rendering of the driving rhythms and juicy Spanglish vocabulary of immigrant speech. Still, all that penitent machismo gets irksome, perhaps for the author as well, since the collection’s most moving story leaves Yunior behind for a female narrator. Yasmin works in the laundry of St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick; her married lover has left his wife behind in Santo Domingo and plans to buy a house for him and Yasmin. Told in quiet, weary prose, “Otravida, Otra Vez” offers a counterpoint to Yunior’s turbulent wanderings with its gentle portrait of a woman quietly enduring as best she can.
Not as ambitious as Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), but sharply observed and morally challenging.