Monday, April 19, 2010

Junot Diaz, The Pura Principle (NewYorker, March 2010)

Cross-posted at Smithereens

I’ve heard a lot of good about Junot Diaz without having read his (Pulitzer-winning) novel, so when I saw his short story on a recent New Yorker, I thought it was a nice introduction. It’s indeed nothing like I usually read, so I’m clearly out of my comfort zone, but it was nice enough.

The young narrator is a Dominican-American high school student, Yunior, whose smart-ass, streetwise big brother Rafa has cancer. Through him we get a glimpse of the family’s life after they all “landed on cancer planet”. The little brother gets high a lot, the mother finds solace in religion (which in Diaz colourful language becomes:” she went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she’d had one handy.”) and the elder brother still pretends to be the same ghetto tough guy he used to be. But his illness changes him too: he tries a serious (read: dull) job in a shop, and when he gets to ill to continue, brings home an illegal Dominican immigrant girl named Pura, whom he seems to fall seriously in love with, to his family’s dismay. Is Pura in it just for the green card? Rafa’s mother thinks so and gets really mean with her, even as Pura tries hard to be the ideal daughter-in-law. But is she really so naïve?

The whole fun of the story is in the ghetto Spanglish language. I really can't tell if it’s realistic, but it flows nicely and the images are both funny and effective. At times it sounds like a rhythmic rap poem, and at times it’s just a teenager trying to get to terms with terrible family events. The brother relationship is nicely done too, reminding me (somehow) of Ethan Canin (which is quite a stretch, given than Canin mainly “does” white suburban middle-class, I guess). I’m not sure I’m ready for a whole book-length of Dominican slang, but it was indeed a revelation.

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