The writing career of Junot Díaz has followed a trajectory that would give any aspiring author a moment of pause. The first story he ever published led directly to an agent and his first book, the thoroughly lauded story collection Drown. Perfect beginning. But then time passed. Ten years. Drown had set the hook so securely into his readership that, as those years passed, we (as I am complicit) took more notice of the lack of a next book. His second book (and first novel), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was finally published in 2007. It won a Pulitzer (along with every other imaginable prize) and cooled everyone’s nerves with the assurance that Díaz was not a onetime deal. Some obstacles had just needed to be vaulted: the pressure and expectation that accompany any sophomore effort, a less than ideal teaching job on the secluded campus of Syracuse University and a spell of writer’s block on top. These all blended together in keeping the writing game, or at least the one Díaz was playing, as full of hope as it was full of the looming possibility of disappointment and failure. Although failure is too strong a word. If you write Drown, you win.
When the terms first novel and Pulitzer got together, they may have ruffled the white feathers of the literary world a bit. To present such a drooled-over prize to a youngish writer with only one prior book was proof that Díaz’s writing embodied the metaphorical “breath of fresh air” critics had so habitually described it to be. His Pulitzer nab was also proof that the literary world needed new oxygen. Díaz’s prose can go from lit class to street corner in the turn of a phrase. For whatever reason (be it racism or the ineptitude of the writer attempting it), this usually works out for next to no one. He kind of owns it now.
I spoke with literary giant Edmund White about the importance of Díaz. “Americans are ashamed of class and very afraid to write about it,” White told me over the phone. “Books about class struggle have been replaced with books about gauche, privileged Americans. Díaz doesn’t do that. He’s working from the inside, describing the immigrant experience, and he is a terribly serious person when it comes to writing.” For the young black writer Mitchell S. Jackson, author of The Residue Years, “Junot is important because, more than anyone else I can think of, he’s in the sweet spot: critically strong and wildly popular. He’s like a bridge between street soldiers and literary prima donnas, bringing people to serious literature who wouldn’t be there without him and all the while satisfying the all-powerful canonizers.” Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times, a reviewer notorious for going completely relentless bitch on many a good book, has always gushed over Díaz’s writing. Finding detractors is a formidable task.
Díaz’s third book and second collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her (out now in paperback), was equally well received, and we had to wait only five years this time. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Díaz was awarded the 2012 MacArthur Fellowship (known as the genius grant) to the tune of $500,000 shortly after its publication. This Is How shifts the focus back onto the character of Yunior, narrator of Brief Wondrous Life, star of Drown and fictional version of the young Díaz. The parallels between Díaz’s life and Yunior’s are so sticky it gets you wondering how the terms fiction and nonfiction were initiated in literature (rather than, say, the past and everything else) and how long they will continue to be applied. They are also so sticky that I embarrassingly began to talk to Díaz about the death of his brother, his brother who is alive, because the two worlds had fused in my head.
“Kind of a dick” is how Díaz had once been described to me, but that description was given by someone who actually is a dick in real life, so I had already deduced that Díaz was cool. He 100 percent was. I met him in front of the Tribeca Grand in downtown Manhattan, and the moment we shook hands, my suspicions that there was nothing dick about this guy were confirmed. You know when you meet someone and you feel as if you have a good friend in common, but you don’t? It was like that. I was relieved, because he was preparing to take me in his car over to Parlin, New Jersey for a few hours, and I’d rather spend the day with someone I like.
Díaz is a thin (thin as in in-shape, not thin as in frail) Dominicano in his mid-40s whose appearance, gesticulations and language have retained much of their youth. Shaved head. Goatee. Modestly, but nicely, dressed. (He’d texted before our meeting to see if he needed to shave for photos. I assured him he did not and that I was looking a little sans home myself.) Díaz is a genuinely pleasant person to be around. He is one of the friendliest, and least writerly, writers I’ve ever met. There is not a drop of social awkwardness about him, and he doesn’t noticeably censor himself before speaking. And I, almost as a rule, like anyone who says “fuck” a lot, if only because it takes a little heat off my own trash mouth. After we got into his car (low-key, black, Bavarian) and I had turned on the recorder, I became so comfortable in his presence that I almost forgot I was doing a piece on him.
Besides the occasional short story (and a good chunk of his novel) taking place in the Dominican Republic, the rest of Díaz’s writing is set in the suburbs of New Jersey. He, his mother and his siblings had moved from the DR to Parlin when he was six to join Díaz’s father, who’d immigrated years before. Díaz was to show me around the neighborhood where he grew up, the inspiration for the hometown of Yunior. The closer we got, the more frequently he began to point things out to narrate. About a mile from our destination he described the neighboring town of Sayreville: “Bon Jovi country. Working class, old folks, starter homes. Big, big Polish immigrant community that got basically organized after World War II. You know, a lot of refugees, a lot of immigrants.” We drove down the strip of road that had been his first glimpse of America. He recalled hearing his father announce, “We’re here!” and then seeing his first great shrine to American capitalism, the golden arches of a McDonald’s.
“There used to be a porn theater right over there, but across the highway on our side was the standard movie theater, so we were always, like, super fucking proud of that,” he recalled. “In many ways that movie theater was my World Wide Web. The only access I had to the world outside this neighborhood was TV and movies.” He went to the theater every week. He started working his first job, a paper route, around the age of 11 so he could pay for his entrance to the movies. “It was my first narrative love.”
You never know what you’re going to get when someone takes you to a place of their past, because all pasts are filled with varying degrees of at least some bad shit. I don’t know if it was the perfect weather of that particular spring morning, the side effects of the pain meds Díaz was taking for recent spinal surgery or the fact that he was the day’s assigned representative of the geographical chunk that had molded him, but he beamed and appeared joyful as he looked around, pointed things out, remembered. I know his fiction well, and to be shown in the tangible what before had lived only in the space between the page and my imagination was a rare and appreciated thing. I was enjoying the tour, drinking it all in. Listening to Díaz talk is a lot like reading him. The voice you hear when you read him? That’s his real voice. That’s how it sounds. I feel most writers don’t exhibit a strong enough personality to manifest itself on the page, but I’m still surprised when I meet a writer who doesn’t match up to his work. It’s usually a case of “This person? Wrote that?” As soon as Díaz begins to speak, you become preternaturally aware that no one else could have written that.
The neighborhood was clean and without ostentation, but its lawns were well manicured. Everyone was at work or in school, and it seemed uninhabited. He slowed the car down and pulled into the parking lot of the apartment building where he and his family lived from 1974 to 1989. Two story, red-orange brick with white trim, no frills. We got out of the car, and he showed me around. I saw the window of the famous basement that appears in his fiction. The basement behind that window is where Yunior and his older brother take girls, smoke weed and watch TV, among other things. “This was us,” he said. “Until real recently we still had our little signatures carved in the concrete.” This was maybe the only time I saw a look of disappointment on his face. “They redid the concrete.”
He showed me the facade of a neighboring apartment building and told me how they used to think—because the porch had fake Georgian pillars—its residents were wealthy. “Which of course wasn’t the case. The most thuggish motherfuckers I ever knew in this town lived right there. The straight-up illest thug, Tyrone, like, to the end, to the very last day I lived in this neighborhood, was still hustling. When we were moving out he was like, ‘Yo, mind if I just, like, crash in the house and stash some shit in there for a few days once you guys are gone?’ I said, ‘Dude, we’ll be gone, yo. Do whatever the fuck you need.’?” Díaz is a guy you could trust with your stash, or at the very least he’s a guy who would let you keep your stash in his home once he was long gone and would never rat you out.
“My first girlfriend in the world lived right there in that building,” he said, pointing across the parking lot. “I still remember. I was such a kid. And I was so different from my brother, who was like this crazy playboy growing up. He was only a year older, but we could have been born on different planets.” By the time his brother was 10, he was already messing around with the neighborhood girls. Díaz remembers the first time a girl asked him to kiss her: “I was maybe 12, and I was so scared I almost shat myself. My brother of course derided me for not trying to fuck her. I still remember that conversation, where he’s like, ‘The fuck’s wrong with you, man?’ There was absolutely no perspective.”