Junot Diaz’s “Drown” is unique among contemporary American literature, in that it captures a facet of American life that many prominent authors had previously overlooked, the experience of the Hispanic-American immigrant.Through the eyes of Yunior and his family, we gain first hand experience of a minority family attempting assimilation into American life, and the economic, social, and cultural struggles intrinsic to that experience. The most profound and fascinating aspect of this struggle can be seen in the dueling character arcs of Yunior, and his father, Ramon. Through observing the dynamic of their relationship, readers can gain insight into the alienating aspects of materialism, the immigrant experience, and the so-called American Dream.
Ironically, the beginning of the de las Casas family’s journey in the United States is captured in “Drown’s” final story, “Negocios,” which chronicles the nine years Ramon spent in the United States, preparing to bring his family over. The story briefly takes place in the Dominican Republic, during which time we get a sense of what kind of man Ramon is. Before he gets his visa, Ramon’s wife discovers his extramarital affair, and throws him out of the house. Shortly afterwards, he goes to his father-in-law asking for money, and lies to him about his infidelity: “Come home, and be good to her.” His father-in-law tells him. “Don’t yell. Don’t hit the children. I’ll tell her you are leaving soon. That will help smooth things between the two of you (Drown, p. 165).” Ramon lingers at the house:
“In a house as loud as ours one woman’s silence was a serious thing. Papi slouched for about a month, taking us to kung fu movies we couldn’t understand and drilling into us how much we’d miss him. He’d hover around Mami while she checked our hair for lice, wanting to be nearby the instant he cracked and begged him to stay (Drown, p. 166).” Already we see that Ramon has a dysfunctional marriage, playing mind games with his wife, sadistically anticipating her to show her weakness, and even attempting to pit his children against her.
Ramon does leave eventually, and once in the United States, endures a string of difficult jobs and uncomfortable living arrangements. He gets beaten up, and swindled out of (what is for him) a large amount of money. It could be considered admirable that Ramon puts himself through so much to support his family, and one might think his struggles would have a humbling effect, but they only augment the more volatile aspects of his personality: his anger, his lustfulness, his greed; upon reunion with his wife and children, Ramon is a changed man, psychologically and emotionally alienated from, and it is this alienation that shapes his relationship with Yunior, as-well-as their separate experiences with America.
The story “Fiesta 1980” takes place after Yunior has been in the United States for three years, on a night the family is going to a party in the Bronx being thrown by Yunior’s aunt. Throughout the course of the story, Yunior is harshly disciplined by his father, and gets into an altercation with one of his cousins. But the greatest conflict Yunior seems to have is with his father’s Volkswagen Van: “Brand-new, lime-green and bought to impress. Oh, we were impressed, but me, every time I was in that VW and Papi went above twenty miles an hour, I vomited (Drown, p. 27).” Yunior’s mother attributes his sickness with the van’s funny-looking upholstery, but it is likely something deeper than that.
Ramon, had left for the United States when Yunior was only a baby, so for all of Yunior’s life, the two of them had no relationship, and it would not be a stretch to say this gave Yunior abandonment issues. What is more, we learn that while away from his family, Ramon has begun another extramarital affair with a Puerto Rican woman, and even takes Yunior to visit her in Volkswagen. When Yunior gets in the car, he can’t help but think of his father’s deceitful behavior towards his mother. Further, Ramon bought the Volkswagen as a way of peacocking, a method of assimilation of into America’s culture of conspicuous consumption. In Yunior’s mind, the two become synthesized, turning the van into a symbol of America and all the negativity moving there has injected into his life, with his car-sickness serving as a physical response – he rejects America, and America rejects him. In subsequent stories of “Drown,” we see how profoundly this affects Yunior’s character, even if he is not aware of it himself.
In “Aurora,” “Boyfriend,” and “Edison, New Jersey,” we see Yunior as a teenager, on the cusp of manhood, and, like his father before him, attempting to achieve all the material life in America. But rather than work honestly, Yunior chooses the life of a criminal, dealing drugs with his friend, Cut. It’s not an easy way to go about making money, as Yunior finds, and interestingly, the way he talks about it is not dissimilar from how a legitimate businessman would describe their work:
“I have friends in Perth Amboy and new brunswick who tell me they deal to whole families, from the grandparents down to the fourth-graders. Things around here aren’t like that yet, but more kids are dealing and bigger crews are coming in from out of town, relatives of folks who live here. We’re still making mad paper but it’s harder now, Cut’s already been sliced once and me, I’m thinking it’s time to grow, to incorporate but Cut says, Fuck no. The smaller the better (Drown, p. 51).”
He talks about the challenges of maintaining revenue and dealing with competition, and his ambitions to grow his business. Yunior exhibits the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that has propelled many immigrants like him to success, the only thing that makes him different is his chosen path to success. Does this have anything to do with Yunior’s relationship with Ramon? Probably. Yunior and Ramon both want access to the American dream of prosperity and financial independence, however, the path each embarks upon is the antithesis of the other’s: Ramon by fighting his way through the system, Yunior by going around it. While Yunior’s experience parallels that of many racial and ethnic minorities, it has special significance for his character. Living through an entire childhood without him fostered in Yunior a sense of distrust and resentment towards Ramon that made it impossible for him to form a proper bond with his father. Further, the embittered attitude Ramon developed after spending nine years doing back-breaking labor to provide for his family caused Yunior to adopt negative emotions toward such work – being a drug dealer is more than a means for Yunior to make money, it’s an act of rebellion, both against the father that abandoned him, and the country that rejected him.
Even when Yunior gets an honest job (delivering and assembling pool tables), he uses it as an opportunity to reap petty vengeance against the establishment, sneaking around the homes of his wealthy customers and wreaking whatever small havoc he can:
“If the customer has been good and tipped well, we call it even and leave. If the customer has been an ass – maybe they yelled, maybe they let their kids throw golf balls at us – I ask for the bathroom … excuse me, I say. I let them show me the way to the bathroom (usually I already know) and once the door is shut I cram bubble bath drops into my pockets and throw fist-sized wads of toilet paper into the toilet. I take a dump if I can leave that for them (Drown, p. 123).”
During Yunior’s money-making endeavours, we also observe how he conducts himself in his relationships with women. One relationship is with the title character of the story “Aurora,” the other is with a woman simply referred to as “Girlfriend.” Neither relationship is functional. Yunior and Aurora fight constantly, both verbally and physically, cheat on each other – Aurora once with Cut, while Yunior is in the same room, and yet remain fiercely codependent on each other:
“We hurt each other too well to let it drop. She breaks everything I own, yells at me like it might change something, tries to slam doors on my fingers. When she wants me to promise her a love that’s never been seen anywhere I think about other girls (Drown, p. 52).”
Yunior’s relationship with Aurora bares a striking resemblance to that of his parents’, and as such reveals him to be more like his father than he would like to think. It’s obvious Yunior and Aurora don’t like each other: it would be more conducive to psychological (and physical) well being of both of them to simply break up, but they stay together out of a mutual addiction to the rush being in constant conflict gives them. Like Ramon, Yunior has a volatile temper, and a cavalier attitude about fidelity within relationships. It is not surprising this is the relationship Yunior creates for himself, considering that it is the only kind he was exposed to growing up. No matter how hard Yunior tried to rebel against him, his father had an indelible and undeniable mark on the man he became.
Yunior finds himself in a dilemma that all young men – and especially sons of immigrants to America – have experienced, trying to forge your own identity, while also making peace with your family’s heritage. A very intriguing passage from “Edison, New Jersey” can illuminate this aspect of Yunior’s character:
“The clothes I’m sure this guy tears from her when they both get home from work – the chokers, the rayon skirts from the Warehouse, the lingerie – I bought with stolen money and I’m glad that none of it was earned straining my back against hundreds of pounds of rock. I’m glad for that (Drown, p. 126).”
Here, Yunior is referring to Girlfriend, with whom he began his relationship after having spent some time listening in on her interactions with her previous boyfriend – whom Yunior refers to simply as “Boyfriend” – through the wall between their adjacent apartments. Their relationship slowly deteriorates, and girlfriend leaves Yunior for a white man. One may wonder if the way Yunior talks about Girlfriend in the above passage is similar to how Ramon may have thought of his wife and children while struggling to forge a foothold in the United States; if he lamented the suffering he subjected himself to for the sake of what he may have perceived to be an ungrateful family. But while they share this feeling about the women in their lives, Yunior is still manages to forge an identity for himself within it by delegitimizing the worth of the material goods he has given to his woman as gifts.
Junot Diaz’s “Drown” sheds light on a demographic typically ignored by American culture, in this way, it is a work of impressive creativity and innovation. That said, it should also be considered a most American work of fiction, as it explores ideas and themes which the country’s writers have for generations: the pursuit of success, the struggle to forge an identity of one’s own, and the feelings of alienation which are inherent in moving from one’s old home to an entirely new one. Due to their complexities, dissecting these themes is an intimidating endeavor; Diaz combats this by fostering an intimate relationship between readers and his narrator. Through Yunior’s eyes, we experience the breadth of the immigrant experience, and learn that no matter where a person comes from, there are certain parts of life that are universal, chief among them is the realization that, whether in spite of, or because of them, our parents play an immeasurably profound role in shaping who we become.