Saturday, January 16, 2010

Readings: Drown

At the same time as we all have Haiti on our mind, I have coincidentally been reading a book by Junot Díaz, who was born in Santo Domingo, on the other side of the island. The book is a collection of connected stories, entitled Drown. The story from which the excerpt is taken is “Edison, New Jersey.” The story is told from the viewpoint of the protagonist, a former thief and drug dealer, who has apparently taken a straight job, delivering pool tables. I liked this paragraph because it speaks of one of the few aspects of what might be called “conservatism” that I admire:

Most people don’t realize how sophisticated pool tables are. Yes, tables have bolts and staples on the rails but these suckers hold together mostly by gravity and by the precision of their construction. If you treat a good table right it will outlast you. Believe me. Cathedrals are built like that. There are Incan roads in the Andes that even today you couldn’t work a knife between two of the cobblestones. The sewers that the Romans built in Bath were so good that they weren’t replaced until the 1950s. That’s the sort of thing I can believe in.

Me, too. The problem with this paragraph is that it’s hard to believe that this character (who is the thread that links the stories together), would have been capable of having these thoughts. Now, Junot Díaz, Rutgers graduate; M.F.A., Cornell University, might have them, but not our boy, the drug dealer from the barrio. One might contemplate the possibility that he’s thinking back on former times, after having acquired a level of sophistication similar to that of his Ivy League-enhanced creator. Well, yes…except that the story is written in the present tense, making it difficult, at best, to suspend disbelief in the dude’s uplifting insights, speaking to us from where he’s at now.

But, all of that said, and all nit-pickery aside, the book is a very good read, and usually—I can say as a former long-time denizen of the Bronx—almost painfully authentic. I recommend it.
Note on the image: this is looking down E. 198th in the Bronx by night, in the 1970s. The crutches had been crammed into a storm sewer grate. Perhaps one of the street-corner boyz had been told, "Your sins are forgiven; rise, walk, and sin no more."