Talk about a surprisingly fortuitous bonus: If you get the audible version of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, included in the deal is Junot Díaz‘s debut title, Drown, a collection of 10 mostly-related short stories. That both Díaz titles are read with such fluency by Jonathan Davis melds the two together, as if each book is a complementary extension of the other.
If you haven’t discovered either book yet, the audible versions are highly recommended together. The main reason is Yunior, Oscar‘s narrator, who in spite of his near omniscient vantage point in the novel, reveals little about himself beyond his love for Oscar’s sister Lola which is never enough to curb his extracurricular exploits. Instead, Drown is where Yunior’s life gets revealed in snippets: his origins in the Dominican Republic, growing up with a mostly absent father who left for the United States, his adventures (sometimes brutal) with his older brother Rafa (“Ysrael”), the struggles his mother faces trying to raise her two sons abandoned and alone (“Aguantando”).
Meanwhile, in New York, Yunior’s father works numerous dead-end jobs, trying to figure out how to reunite his family, and falls into another marriage, another life (“Negocios”). The family is eventually reunited, adding a little sister for Rafa and Yunior. Yunior is prone to car sickness earning his father’s violent wrath (“Fiesta 1980”), worries about his sexuality (“Drown”), yet knows all the certain love moves for girls of different ethnicities (“How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie”). As an adult, he’s mourning the loss of his girlfriend for whom he used to steal spending money at his pool table delivery job (“Edison, NJ), although he thinks he might get over his latest breakup by befriending the model in the apartment below whose lover has recently broken her heart (“Boyfriend”).
Díaz’s stories here, about Yunior or not, are all raw, visceral, and each aching with need. The rejected suffering endured in the Dominican Republic does not necessarily abate with an American address. Material and physical comforts (food, transportation, a home) are not enough for the good life, especially with fractured families that can’t seem to find a way back together, regardless of closing distance. Yunior and Oscar: two overlapping books, two diametric lives, one parallel quest for lasting true love.