IMAGE BY: Rick Reinhard/Flickr
by Jonathan Russell Clark
Junot Díaz has pretty much made a career for himself with one narrator. We first meet Yunior, a Dominican raised in New Jersey, like Díaz himself, in Drown, published in 1996. The stories that make up Drown show Yunior as an adolescent or a young man, growing up and coming into his own. In one story, “Aurora,” we get our first taste of one of Yunior’s most distinct qualities: his rampant philandering. Yunior’s roommate, Cut, doesn’t like Aurora, and “never gives [Yunior] the messages she leaves with him.” Yunior doesn’t care, though, because the notes are “bullshit mostly, but every now and then she leaves one that makes me want to treat her better.” Through and through, Yunior is always direct about the way he treats women, and over the years it doesn’t really change. Sixteen years later, with the publication of This Is How You Lose Her, we find Yunior older but not any wiser. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” opens like this:
Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty. Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived—but you’re not engaged to super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.
And you did.
This extended passage displays another of Yunior’s most prominent characteristics: his voice. Díaz is ubiquitously praised for his prose style, his mix of whip-smart prose, low-brow colloquialism, remarkable rhythm, and Spanish words dotting the pages. Put together, these aspects of Díaz’s writing make it energetic, authentic and utterly singular. Notice, though, in the above passage, where the Spanish words appear. Let’s go through them. There’s “sucia,” a Spanish dysphemism for promiscuous women, and “cuero,” another derogatory term for an overly sexual person. Then there’s “blanquita,” which means “white girl,” and “salcedeña,” which refers to a person from Salcedo, a city in the Dominican Republic. What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression.
Díaz has been raiding this shit since his first collection. In the title story, “Drown,” another feature of Yunior’s life is explored: his rigorous masculinity. The culture Yunior comes up in isn’t exactly the most open-minded in the world, and a male’s perceived masculinity becomes an important trait to defend. “Drown,” then, captures many of Díaz’s recurring themes—sex, masculinity, language—and subtly investigates Yunior’s relationship to all three. Yunior describes what he and his friends do for fun, which consists mostly of going out to bars and failing to pick up women. Afterwards, they’ll “pass the fag bar, which never seems to close. Patos are all over the parking lot, drinking and talking.” Alex, one of Yunior’s cohorts, sometimes stops the car and says, “Excuse me,” and “when somebody comes over from the bar he’ll point his plastic pistol at them, just to see if they’ll run or shit their pants.” Yunior tells this story with a narrative straight-face, implying that such outward homophobia permeates his peer group.
When Yunior first mentions Beto, the subject of the story, he recalls “the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us.” More than homophobic, there is a thread of violence pervasive here as well. They’ll urinate on an innocent person’s home and then challenge them. Ostentatious masculinity does not even need to be provoked; it is offered, presented, displayed.
Some critics find Díaz’s authenticity to be dubious, as if his vernacular were outdated. Critic Rob Jacklosky claims “there is too much reliance on ‘street’ constructions that already sound quaint, such as the use of ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ as an adverb, and ‘dope’ as an adjective.” Though Jacklosky’s intimate knowledge of American-Dominican nomenclature usage is never validated, it’s safe to say that he’s way the hell off here. He seems to believe that if certain phrases disappear from the popular zeitgeist, it must mean they’ve stopped being used by individual communities, as if we’ve stopped saying “cool” decades after its introduction into American language, or “hip” or “awesome” or “sweet.” Even more insidious is the implicit claim here that novels or stories that do not feature up-to-date vernacular are somehow automatically irrelevant. Does Jacklosky have any idea how young people speak? People still say “dope.” But he paints Díaz’s use of “street” language as disingenuous, the kind of “street lingo only an upper-eastside editor could see as cutting-edge.” Rather, Díaz’s language is filled with the kind of lingo that only tone-deaf critics would see as “quaint.”
Díaz’s stories exist in a real place filled with real people, which makes the pervasive homophobia and its underlying violence all the more rattling to read. As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro has it, these stories are “alternately set in an impoverished Dominican campo where young boys grow accustomed, each year, to shitting worms that their mamis don’t have the medicine to treat, to the scarcely-better life of public housing in New Jersey, where those same boys hide the ‘government cheese’ when girls come over.” Yunior is even shown to be a smart kid (which considering that he’s a Diaz stand-in isn’t all that surprising). When Yunior tells the reader about his now-defunct relationship with Beto, he remembers a telling incident, which involves a sign at the neighborhood pool decreeing “No Expectorating”:
Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.
Shit, he said. Where did you learn that?
Tell me. He hated when I knew something he didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.
Yunior is smart, but he refuses to be ostentatious about it, quite a far cry from his otherwise masculine theatrics. Moreover, it is important to note that it is a single word that functions to show how different Yunior and Beto are, yet how similar. They’re both proud and competitive, especially about intelligence, but Yunior keeps his under wraps, as he doesn’t view himself—or maybe he doesn’t want to view himself—as intellectually curious. Beto, on the other hand, “hated everything about the neighborhood” and was “delirious at the thought” of leaving for college. Yunior, however, “wasn’t like him,” for he “had another year to go in high school, no promises elsewhere.” Yunior has no ambitions, and he seems to be suspicious of Beto’s.
Just as their competitive intelligence is highlighted by a single word, so too is their sexuality. Yunior introduces Beto as a “pato,” a derogatory term for a gay person, and uses the word again when he and his friends drive past the gay bar and make fun of the patrons. Why does this mean-spirited term keep arising? Well, it seems as if Yunior wants to distance himself from the word and its implications in his own life. When Yunior and Beto were younger, best friends who did everything together, Beto shows Yunior one of his father’s pornos. As they watch, Beto reaches into Yunior’s shorts and jacks him off. A similar event happens again, but Yunior stops it before it ends. Now, years later, Beto’s back in town from college, but Yunior only half-heartedly seeks him out, which basically amounts to avoiding him. In the end, he doesn’t see Beto, and probably won’t ever again.
Nowhere in “Drown” does the word ‘gay’ appear. All we get instead is “pato” and “fag.” Yunior won’t use the word, because if he does it will somehow turn into something permanent, something he can’t rationalize away by saying “Twice. That’s it,” as he does with Beto. He can’t face his former best friend, just as he can’t say the word that might be true, recalling Alfred Douglas’s famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” For a young man in a masculine world that’s also suspicious of intelligence and ambition, there are just some things you can’t say, some things you just can’t be.
Yet these cue (or I suppose anti-cue) words are in Spanish, Yunior’s native language, so the thematic dynamics are distinct between the text-to-reader meaning and the Yunior-to-Spanish meaning. For the reader, these terms function as a brief peak into Yunior’s inner struggles, but for Yunior, the fact that Spanish is the language of his vulnerabilities speaks to its significance. Whenever the deepest, most challenging parts of Yunior emerge, they do so in his most essential and foundational nomenclature. Spanish, to put it another way, reaches even the darkest crevasses of Yunior’s heart.
As noted above, Díaz never provides the translations for the Spanish slang he employs. This is because he wants the meaning of these terms to be one step below the surface, just slightly hidden, a way of suggesting Yunior’s discomfort with their meanings. He can’t face his issues with monogamy, referring to himself as a “cuero” and women as “sucias.” He won’t explain to Beto (or to us) where he learned what expectorating means. And he won’t see Beto, once his best friend, now a “pato,” because he can’t face what’s just underneath the surface, the meaning of the words, obscured from the reader ever so slightly by a foreign tongue, but unambiguously clear enough to everyone, even the people who don’t speak the language.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.