Faber & Faber
REVIEW BY: Kavish Chetty
Diaz’s lispy rhythms shark off the page with a poetic energy. His language is electric: a carnal mesh of low-slung Spanish slang and erotic lyricism; a whole galaxy of argots seething together.
This slim volume of short stories takes love and betrayal as its organising themes, but its treatment is in magnificent excess of what’s promised by the cover: canary yellow with cursive calligraphy, it seems to suggest the idiot prose of cheap romance. Instead, Diaz takes an intelligent detour through the darker sides of human relationships. He writes of fraternal bonds and masculine infidelity, of adolescence as “a long dark patch of life, like a mile of black ice”. He takes to his subject with comic sarcasm and sincerity, but also with mortal awareness. The result is an insightful thread of episodes – enormously funny, and often intruded upon with a sense of tragedy.
The narrators are Dominican diaspora, living out the strange inside/outside experience of exile in America. He sets his action in the tenements of Harlem, but also in New Jersey and New York; arcing through the intensities of summer romance, and the desolate winters of their aftermath. These pages are thronged with tigueres, blanquitas and cocoa panyol. Latina vernacular jostles up against references to “budget Foucaults”, an explosive lexical mix which is often addictive.
Breakups are “like being slowly pincered apart, atom by atom”. In the opening story, Yunior’s girlfriend discovers a trove of letters which charge him with a history of infidelities. On holiday in Santo Domingo, he stages his re-seduction. When he touches her, she turns her head, “which is her way of saying, I’m too proud to acquiesce openly to your animal desires, but if you continue to put your finger in me, I won’t stop you.”
The story tilts toward this kind of desperate erotic comedy, but its philosophic undertow is serious: Yunior is shot through with yearning and remorse, dredging up half-submerged memories, learning to negotiate the fragility of romance, the contingency of desire: “And that’s when you know it’s over,” he thinks. “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”
Diaz’s horizons are expansive, moving from here to childhood, family, illness. His young male characters are raw with youth: in love with their brothers’ girlfriends (a young broad with “a mouth like unswept glass”; a girl with a “big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans”), trying to figure out the elusive principles of romance.
But then there are brief and flirtatious second-person narratives, wedged against more somber material like “Invierno”. In this brilliant story, a Dominican family struggles to contend with the isolating experience of a new country – his sibling protagonists, charged with curiosity, are the perfect explorers of this alienating territory.
Diaz has mapped a splendid cartography of love and its crises.
This review appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012.