Jonathan Mcaloon

Junot Diaz, the new Saul Bellow

Every so often a writer renovates a whole literary landscape from underneath. Armed to the teeth with slang and learning, Saul Bellow reinvented American prose with The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, and it took thirty years for a Martin Amis, a disciple of Bellow, to bring English up to date with Money. But then the language became saturated with people who wanted to sound like Amis and we needed writers from the Commonwealth to infuse English with their idioms to make it new again. (Or was this the other way around?)

New prose Messiahs are often announced but rarely stick around. Junot Diaz might well be the real thing for American prose: his has been celebrated for being lithe and alive since his first book, Drown, but more so since the Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His Dominican characters usually speak a cocky dazzle of literary allusion and Spanish inflected street talk: foulmouthed, bookish and macho. Take this from his new collection of short stories: This Is How You Lose Her, in which the narrator, Yunior, describes his brother Rafa:

‘Not a week out of hospital, he cracked this illegal Peruvian kid in the face with a hammer and two hours later threw down at the Pathmark because he thought some fool was talking shit about him, popped said fool in the piehole with a weak overhand right before a bunch of us could break it up. What the fuck, he kept yelling, as if we were doing the craziest thing ever. The bruises he gave himself fighting us were purple buzz saws, infant hurricanes.’

The prose seems to bluster but is rich with detail and literary sensitivity. The throwaway phrase ‘this illegal Peruvian kid,’ which tells us the boy doesn’t have a visa, somehow makes that dangerous word ‘illegal’ a vulnerable one.

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