Published in 1996, Diaz’s first novel is almost too expansive, too full of life, sex, drink, joy, cruelty and loss, to be contained within the covers of a book.
Told as a fragmentary series of short but linked stories, it is the story of an early life in the Dominican Republic followed by life as a migrant worker in New Jersey, where they experience first hand the ferocity of competition that is the truth of the ‘American Dream’. Very present is the trauma of both the “loss” of their country of origin, but also the trauma of their permanently embattled status within the US itself, and also within their own immigrant neighbourhood, where they are new comers and obliged to fight for they piece of the action.
The stories embody transitionality – not just the geographical movements and uncertainties, but also there is an undertone of fluidity in sexual tastes / practices, perhaps experimentation amongst the young men.
There is cruelty – the story Ysrael has Yunior (the main voice of the book) and his elder brother Rafa, while back in Dominica, searching for another boy from their area who’s face was disfigured by a pig, and hence only appears in public wearing a mask – when they find him they try goading him into taking off the mask.
In Boyfriend, an older Yunior hears the ‘lover’s fights’ of his neighbours and spends the entire short story trying to get up the courage and devise ways to ‘bump into’ the young woman and maybe speak with her.
How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie, is a story as a (funny) instruction manual: it all about the dos and don’ts of dating girls from different social standings, classes and races, as seen through the mind of an anxious teenage boy, who really doesn’t know what he’s about. He has the family home to himself for the evening:
“Take down any embarrassing photos of your family in the campo, especially the on with the half-naked kids dragging a goat on a rope leash…Hide the pictures of yourself with an Afro. Make sure the bathroom is presentable. Put the bucket with all the crapped-on paper under the sink. Spray the bucket with Lysol, then close the cabinet…Shower, comb, dress. Sit on the couch and watch TV…”
No face, tells Ysrael’s story from his point of view and his anxiety before facial reconstruction surgery.
The book opens with a poem by Gustavo Perez Firmat, which begins:
The fact that I / am writing to you / in English / already falsifies what I / wanted to tell you./… I don’t belong to English / though I belong nowhere else.
The word that most frequently occurs in reviews or descriptions of this book is “urgent”: and that is correct.