Drown, by Junot Diaz

I heard about Drown, the brilliant collection of short stories by Junot Diaz, for years but never read it until now. Let me just say: It was worth the wait.

There are several recurrent themes running through this collection (the lost father, the regained father, the lost love, brotherhood, betrayal–often sexual) but the one I found most striking was that of facelessness.

You would think that facelessness is synonymous with invisibility, but here it is not. There is something within that facelessness, which makes the person all the more visible–scorned, pitied, hated, feared, and by some, treated with great kindness. The faced want the faceless to be gone for good because they represent the worst fear: That you, too, might one day suffer this fate where all that defines you to the outside world is stripped away, where you are a stranger in a strange land–where you are unloved and unlovable.

“Ysrael” is the boy with no face, his face having been mostly chewed off by a pig when he was an infant. Because of this he wears a mask and awaits a humanitarian intervention in which doctors in Canada are meant to restore his face. But this day never seems to come and he is scorned and beaten, but he is also an object of intense interest. There is something about him that fascinates the other boys; if only they could just see behind his mask. But even when they do, it infuriates them, repulses them. There is nothing in seeing his face that makes them feel better about themselves. It only makes them feel worse, more powerless.

Then when the reader sees the world from his point of view in “No Face,” we understand that though he is deformed and maligned there is still great hope and beauty in his world, though he might not realize it. There is something strong deep within that will keep him alive despite the obstacles. He is a survivor. He will run:

He watches the sun burn the mists from the fields and despite the heat the beans are thick and green and flexible in the breeze. His mother sees him on the way back from the outhouse. She goes to fetch his mask.

He’s tired and aching but he looks out over the valley, and the way the land curves away to hide itself reminds him of the way Lou hides his dominos when they play. Go, she says. Before your father comes out.

He knows what happens when his father comes out. He pulls on his mask and feels the fleas stirring in the cloth. When she turns her back, he hides, blending into the weeds. He watches his mother hold Pesao’s head gently under the faucet and when the water finally urges out from the pipe Pesao yells as if he’s been given a present or a wish come true.

He runs, down toward the town, never slipping or stumbling. Nobody’s faster.

So Ysrael stands for the best hope of all of the faceless within these stories–and the message is to keep going, keep running, keep moving forward no matter how people will push you down and try to keep you from being seen.

In that, a book, which might otherwise be bleak, I found quite hopeful. And so, in the end, what you have is a collection of stories that are beautiful, necessary, and heartbreaking. Read it.

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