So in my last post I spoke about the author Junot Diaz. I am halfway through his Pullitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (so far brilliant) and am also working my way through his first book Drown, a collection of ten short stories. Again, brilliant. The voice of Drown, which appears to be one coherent voice of a Dominican boy as he evolves through childhood and into teenagerhood, is more conventional than that of the voice in TBWLO (sorry but the title is too long to keep writing!) which is so much more dialectically inflected and specialised. However the reason for this premature post, premature in that I haven’t actually finished either book, is that I want to talk about one of the stories in Drown, that being Aurora. This story, even though I read it only last night, is going to make a lasting impression on me. I can just feel it, the sneaky little bugger has already made its way into my bones and made sure that I won’t forget it. So first off, a brief synopsis. Aurora is divided into what one might call mini chapters. These parts are given headings such as ‘A Working Day’ or ‘One of Our Nights’ or ‘While You Were Gone’. It is a pretty dirty story, packed full of grit and urban desintegration yet it is never sentimental, a strength which seems to pervade all of Diaz’s work. Aurora opens with the protagonist and his friend Cut going to buy some weed, some of which they smoke in the car after buying it on their way home where it takes ‘four hours of TV to sort, weigh and bag’ it. The two of them run a low-level drug dealing business. The narrator is waiting for his crack addicted girlfriend, Aurora, to show up and when she does he describes her thus;

She’s skinny – six months out of juvie and she’s skinny like a twelve-year-old.

The places that the narrator and the other characters inhabit in this story are smelly and dirty and transitory. He sleeps on an old mattress ‘which stinks of pussy’ and he longs for the time when he and Aurora lived like urban gypsies, moving from one abandoned apartment to the next. They are all kids in this story, some of them kids with their own kids, but they are hard and necessarily resourceful

Much has been written about Diaz as the voice of the disenfranchised immigrant society that straddles the barrios of the Dominican Republic and the inner-city wastelands of New York. He uses a lot of vernacular and intermingles his stories with Spanish that is lost on most readers. Yet the slang terms he uses are not so edgy that they cannot be understood and although much attention has been paid to this aspect of his writing, I find it the least interesting part. Yes, it does heighten the context and the sense of place and time but it is only an adornment to a much deeper and more wrought feature of his writing. I think this is most evident in Aurora. The kids in this story remind me of those that we saw in that infamous Larry Clark film ‘Kids’. And although you can get fixated on the danger and dirt and defilement of their lives, there are things going on there which are relevant to all levels of society. Even with the threat of addiction and homelessness and AIDS hovering above the characters in Aurora, there is something simple and domestic about the story which is at its heart a basic love story, a nostalgic yearning for a time past.

Here is a passage from the story which I think illustrates this:

        She’s skinny – six months out of juvie and she’s skinny like a twelve-year-old.

       I want some company, she says.

       Where are the dogs?

       You know they don’t like you. She looks out the window, all tagged over with initials and fuck yous. It’s going to rain, she says.

       It always looks like that.

      Yeah, but this time it’s going to rain for real.

      I put my ass down on the old mattress, which stinks of pussy.

      Where’s your partner? she asks.

      He’s sleeping.

     That’s all that nigger does. She’s got the shakes – even in this light I can see that. Hard to kiss anyone like that, hard even to touch them – the flesh moves like it’s on rollers. She yanks open the drawstrings on her knapsack and pulls out cigarettes. She’s living out of her bag again, on cigarettes and dirty clothes. I see a T-shirt, a couple of tampons and those same green shorts, the thin high-cut ones I bought her last summer.

      Where have you been? I ask. Haven’t seen you around.

      You know me. Yo ando mas que un perro.

      Her hair is dark with water. She must have gotten herself a shower, maybe at a friend’s, maybe in an empty apartment. I know that I should dis her for being away so long, that Cut’s probably listening, but I take her hand and kiss it.

      Come on, I say.

      You ain’t said nothing about the last time.

      I can’t remember no last time. I just remember you.

      She looks at me like maybe she’s going to shove my smooth-ass line back down my throat. Then her face becomes smooth. Do you want to jig?

      Yeah, I say. I push her back on the mattress and grab at her clothes. Go easy, she says.

       I can’t help myself with her and being blunted makes it worse. She has her hands on my shoulder blades and the way she pulls on them I think maybe she’s trying to open me.

      Go easy, she says.

      We all do shit like this, stuff that’s no good for you. You do it and then there’s no feeling positive about it afterward. When Cut puts his salsa on the next morning, I wake up, alone, the blood doing jumping jacks in my head. I see that she’s searched my pockets, left them hanging out of my pants like tongues. She didn’t even bother to push the fuckers back in.

I really love this story. It’s sad and the narrator is sad, you really sense that. There is nothing really uplifting about it and there is no redeeming moment. It just is what it is, a slice, a brief view into someone’s life. And for all the ‘streetness’ about it, this is not what you are left thinking about.

I think one review I read put it best, that Diaz is ‘a missive from a literary past: Diaz is working in a classic, not a street mode.’


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