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An Artist in Transit : DROWN, By Junot Diaz (Riverhead Press: $21.95, 224 pp.)

September 01, 1996|RICHARD EDER

The empire always strikes back. Cromwell subjugated Ireland 350 years ago; today the British wrestle intractably with the Irish problem and an occasional bomb blast. The French exercised their power and culture in North Africa and prospered; today France's politics and urban urbanity are strained by millions of North African immigrants and also an occasional bomb.

The United States availed itself of the African slave trade and today argues over the bill: poverty and crime and, latterly, the claims of affirmative action. It established an economic, if not literally imperial, hegemony in Latin America; today its cities are slipping, its social nets torn and its politics grown ugly over the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

In some cases the hegemony was, in fact, imperial: the annexing of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War and, in 1916 and again in 1965, a military intervention in Santo Domingo. It is since that time that Dominicans have become, along with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, the largest Latino immigrant cohort in several U.S. cities.

What writers bring first is the news; it takes longer to refine it into art. Depicting his fellow Dominicans in their struggling transit between island poverty and a laborious, denaturing effort to make their way here, Junot Diaz is in a transit of his own between news and art. We need both. Our society has become so stratified, so internally isolated by class, color, culture, language and crime, or the fear of it, that today the only news from across the barriers comes from younger Latino, Asian and black novelists and street poets. If their appeal is raw, and in many cases unsubtle, the humanity they portray is immediate and accessible.

Until the passing of time lifts the new immigrants as it once lifted the old ones--it is not clear that our society remains resilient enough for this to happen--it is the artists who offer most of us the only way across and back. It took Dickens to arouse the Victorians to an awareness of the horrors below; it may be only a Diaz and his fellow writers who can arouse our imaginations, at least.

Whether we are capable, as the Victorians sometimes were, of taking action on behalf of imagination is another question. If there is a culture of poverty, there is also--perhaps as degrading--a culture of living alongside poverty.

The 10 stories in "Drown" tell of families displaced and torn apart, fathers who wander off or grow desperate or both, young people struggling to find not even a way up but just the first step or two. In "Aguantando" ("Enduring"), Junior, the young narrator of several of the stories, recounts the abject poverty he, his brother and their mother experienced at home during the years their father was trying to make his way in New York.

The mother worked 12 hours a day in a chocolate factory, the children were so dirty and louse-ridden that their schoolmates had to breathe through their mouths in their vicinity. Their food was meager and contaminated, and when Junior sat on the toilet "long gray parasites slid out from between my legs." In "Aurora," the narrator is an adolescent in a Newark, N.J., slum. He deals drugs to the neighborhood and tries but fails to nurture his lover, a wild girl who alternately clings to him and goes on heroin binges and probably has AIDS.

Diaz's anger, his need to report the desperate details, can read like a denunciation before a judge, with the reader as both judge and accused. These two stories are uninflected misery; realistic reporting but with only a faint beginning of artistic transformation.

The author wrestles--consciously--with something else as well: language. Quoting another writer, he puts it lucidly: "How to explain to you that I don't belong to English though I belong nowhere else."

The fractured English, dotted with Spanish, that is spoken on the streets of many American cities is too new and raw to have synthesized into consistent expressiveness, as black and Yiddish rhythms have done with English and Haitian Creole has done with French. Sometimes Diaz's interjected Spanish words do enrich; sometimes they seem arbitrary and, like putting salsa on ice cream, rob both flavors of their intensity while contributing no more than descriptiveness.

As mentioned earlier, though, Diaz is in transit. The best stories in "Drown" are far more than reportage. Not coincidentally, perhaps, these seem to make less use of Spanish words; what we get instead is a Spanish sensibility and rhythm transformed into English.

"Fiesta" is a poignant, complex account of Junior's family, now reunited with their father in New Jersey. On one level, it is a richly detailed account of a party given by his uncle and aunt upon their move into a Manhattan apartment. A tremendous amount of cooking and eating goes on; there is dancing, flirting and the generosity of guests and hosts in celebrating despite their troubles.

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