Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Arrival of Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz's 1996 collection of short stories, Drown, has begun to seem like an ethereal dream in recent years. That sparkling set of tales featuring Dominican immigrants in New York and New Jersey featured great humor and empathy and was written in a dazzling array of styles and voices. But for 11 long years, it was all we had from Diaz.

During those years, I had begun to wonder if Diaz's fate was to be a Dominican Harper Lee. Had I mistaken a one-hit wonder for the debut of a virtuoso? With the release of his new novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz answers any possible doubts about his tremendous talent.

My personal history with Drown predates my role as the bookstore's buyer. I was the staff manager at the time of its release and was one of several people on the staff that read contemporary literary fiction. However, I was just about the only person who relished good short story collections. Then, as now, a good short story engenders more complaints than compliments. A story's brevity is seen as a fault rather than a virtue.

At the time, I knew only one publisher sales rep by name, the Penguin rep Laura, and occasionally she put a galley in my hand for consideration. When she did, I was sure to read the book. Unlike now, when the bookstore is flooded with hundreds of readers copies a month, a recommended galley was to be cherished. I only saw a handful of these before I became a buyer.

Laura sought me out on the main floor where I was helping a customer in the new fiction section. She held a slender volume in her hand, and when the customer moved on she said in a hurried voice, "Arsen, you have to read this book. I really want to know what you think." I took the book from her and thumbed through it. The titles "Aguantando", "Negocios" and "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie," jumped out at me. They seemed different, exotic and in the case of the dating one, humorous. I looked at Laura and she seemed even more hyped up than usual. "We think this could really work, but we need to get readers who appreciate stories."

I took the book home that night and started it immediately. Within three days, I had completed the 10 stories. Diaz's prose entranced me, and the world of Dominican immigrants intrigued me. I called Laura (this was before I was using email) and told her how enthusiastic I was about the book. I also requested that Diaz come to the store for a reading. Once the book came out, I was a one-man band in Boulder, constantly pushing the book on anyone who would listen.

Why had it struck me so strongly? In part, it was the immediacy of Diaz's writing. It sounded like he was sitting right next to you speaking the lines. The writing was so artful that it seemed to be without artifice. In part, it was the subject. What did I know of the Dominican experience? Not much. But somehow it resonated with the immigrant stories my Armenian relatives had told me, even though those stories were set 30 to 60 years earlier and involved a very different culture.

Diaz never came to the store to read from Drown in 1996 or 1997. That didn't stop us from selling over 100 copies in hardback. The next year, I became the store's buyer, and each season when the Penguin mailing came, I eagerly went through the Riverhead catalog searching for his promised novel. It was never there. Laura moved to New York a few years later, and gradually Diaz's debut began to fade in my memory.

When I first saw the catalog listing for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this spring, I simply didn't believe it. Was this some cruel publishing prank? I was sure the rep would come in and tell me the book had been postponed. But soon after the catalog, a reader's copy followed, and then best of all, a few months ago we confirmed a signing with Diaz. The long wait was finally over. And yet, I found myself paralyzed, unable to read the book through most of the summer.

A series of long-awaited books that had become disappointments hung over me. Amy Bloom, Nathan Englander and Ron Carlson are all great short story writers who's 2007 novels simply didn't meet my expectations. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, his first full-length novel since Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was so silly I couldn't get past page 50. This was a tremendous letdown since I consider Kavalier and Clay one of the best novels of the past 10 years.

It was with great trepidation that I approached Diaz's novel in the waning days of August. As I waded into it, I soon found that all my fears were unfounded. Finally, a book worth the wait. Actually, it is a book worth any wait. Diaz's voice is as confident and intimate as it was in Drown and his characters are as fascinating. Stylistically, Diaz simply cannot be matched by most of today's writers. The narrative varies from first-person to second-person to third with an ease that makes these jumps in point of view seem almost natural. The book also slips back and forth through time, ranging from today to the 1940s with an equal sense of ease.

All that would be enough to make the story of the obese lovelorn Oscar, his stubborn and willful sister Lola, their powerful intimidating mother and their Dominican family one of the best novels of the year. But Diaz's novel is not just another stylistic mind-bender like Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, or a comic exercise in smart literary criticism like Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, it is a remarkable account of the long-lasting effects that life under a dictator can have for generations of people. Diaz is exploring the influence that fear can exert on the lives of people even years after the dictator has died and the families have moved thousands of miles. In short, it is sadly a novel about the most common human experience of the last century. All of the novel's stylistic playfulness serves the purpose of revealing an amazingly powerful and important story.

Diaz's dictator is Trujillo, the man who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. We have seen him in other novels, most notably Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies. But here we don't really confront him directly. As Diaz said at his event in Boulder the other night, he's more interested in the silences of history. His Trujillo is a shadow man. His appearances are limited to a few brief scenes, but his malevolence hangs over the whole novel. He's a man who ruled his country with the assent of many people. It is these people and their willingness to acquiesce that haunt the Dominicans as much as the evil dictator does. It is this complicity, along with the horrible acts of violence, that still cannot be spoken about.

Despite taking on such a serious topic, Diaz keeps the novel focused on Oscar and his sister. Oscar is a nerd beyond most typical nerds. He reads comic books, writes science fiction and can't get to first base with a girl. If it wasn't for Lola's ex-boyfriend taking pity on him, he'd be friendless even in college. Lola is headstrong and at one point runs away with a neglectful boyfriend to Wildwood, New Jersey to escape the rule of her mother. We discover that Lola is carrying out the destiny set by the very mother she is running from. It's a world dominated by the women, a similarity this novel shares with the stories in Drown, and coming of age isn't easy for the beautiful women of Oscar's family.

The stories of the characters are told through various narrative devices. In response to a question Diaz fielded at the bookstore about the shifting narration, he spoke about how he hoped to keep the narrative just out of his readers' grasp, slipping through their fingers as they tried to grab hold. He wanted to make it impossible for his readers to pin down the novel as one narration. He didn't want them getting too comfortable. To further illuminate his story, he also pulls out a magician's bag of literary tricks: footnotes, italics, letters, Dominican phrases and a healthy dose of literary and comic allusions. Coursing through the whole novel and holding it together is the idea of an ancient curse, the fuku, that haunts the Dominican, and perhaps all New World, people. All of this is woven into the novel with compassion and a whip-smart wit.

In person, Diaz is a remarkably warm presence. He came out into the audience, like a soft-spoken professor, and asked what was happening in Boulder. He was mostly met by silence and anxious laughs, but over time he was able to establish a dialogue that is rare in author appearances. He fielded an array of questions and spoke at length about his torturous writing technique (needless to say, there were hundreds if not thousands of pages thrown away), the history of the Dominican Republic, genre fiction and comic books.

Afterwards, he signed books slowly, taking a few minutes with each customer and connecting with them on an individual level. He spoke to the nerdy guy about comic books, an older couple about their time in the Dominican Republic, and finally he spoke to me about the book business and touring. I learned that they had only sent him to eight cities when he toured for Drown.

I had planned to use my time to plead with him not to take another 10 years for his next book. But I couldn't even bring myself to mention it to him. Maybe if he only took five or eight years, this novel wouldn't be so wonderful. He's still young, so there's no rush. Even if it takes him a decade to write a book, I should have another four or five Junot Diaz masterpieces to savor. If that's all there is, then that will be more than enough.

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