The current double issue of The New Yorker, the fiction issue, contains more nonfiction offerings than short stories. Among them are holiday reminiscences from Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith, and three other writers.
I worship Diaz. Since the late 90’s his publications have been so slow in coming that fans like me wring their hands and worry that he’s suffering from writer’s block. So I hesitate to say anything critical. But his contribution struck me as an inferior, nonfiction version of “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” which was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1999.
In the fictional story, as in the true reminiscence, the narrator takes a pre-planned trip from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic with his reluctant girlfriend. She has discovered only recently that the narrator, Yunior, cheated on her. And she barely deigns to accompany him.
Normally “super-courteous” and “a talker, a fucking boca,” Magda, the girlfriend, meets Yunior’s abuelo and quietly endures several days at his sweltering, ramshackle house before insisting that she and Yunior move near a beach. They end up at “Casa de Campo. The Resort That Shame Forgot…. the largest, wealthiest resort on the Island, which means it’s a goddamn fortress, walled away from everybody else.”
Things don’t improve once they’ve checked in. As they hit the beach, Magda’s withdrawn and Yunior becomes increasingly insecure:
Magda’s rocking a dope Ochun-colored bikini that her girls helped her pick out so she could torture me, and I’m in these old ruined trunks that say “Sandy Hook Forever!” I’ll admit it, with Magda half naked in public I’m feeling vulnerable and uneasy. I put my hand on her knee. “I just wish you’d say you love me.”
“Can you say you like me a lot?”
“Can you leave me alone? You’re such a pestilence.”
I let the sun stake me out to the sand. it’s disheartening, me and Magda together. We don’t look like a couple. When she smiles niggers ask her for her hand in marriage; when I smile folks check their wallets. Magda’s been a star the whole time we’ve been here. You know how it is when you’re on the Island and your girl’s an octoroon. Brothers go apeshit. On buses, the machos were like, “Tu si eres bella, muchacha.”
Every time I dip into the water for a swim, some Mediterranean Messenger of Love starts rapping to her. Of course, I’m not polite. “Why don’t you beat it, pancho? We’re on our honeymoon here.” There’s this one squid who’s mad persistent, even sits down near us so he can impress her with the hair around his nipples, and instead of ignoring him she starts a conversation and it turns out he’s Dominican too, from Quisqueya Heights, an assistant D.A. who loves his people. “Better I’m their prosecutor,” he says. “At least I understand them.” I’m thinking he sounds like the sort of nigger who in the old days used to lead bwana to the rest of us. After three minutes of him, I can’t take it no more and say, “Magda, stop talking to that asshole.”
The assistant D.A. startles. “I know you ain’t talking to me,” he says.
“Actually,” I say, “I am.”
“This is unbelievable.” Magda gets to her feet and walks stiff-legged toward the water. She’s got a half-moon of sand stuck to her butt. A total fucking heartbreak.
The vacation progresses and it becomes clear that the relationship is as doomed as Yunior’s plan to slip unnoticed back into life in the country he left as a child. Yet the details and situations are so human, so perfectly observed — just the right mix of the expected and surprising — that I’m compelled each time I pick the book up to read the whole story again.
The nonfiction essay, in contrast, is short on scene and long on summary. There’s the wronged girlfriend, the visit to the island, and an interesting bit about volunteering with some dentists that doesn’t appear in the short story. When I read it, I’m enlightened. I’m fairly entertained. But I’m not moved the way I expect to be by Diaz’s work.
Zadie Smith, on the other hand, manages a flawless contribution. “If you are brown and decide to date a British man, sooner or later he will present you with a Paul Gauguin,” it begins. And then she trots out the evidence, one former boyfriend at a time.