The Austin Chronicle

In Person

October 10, 1997, Books

Junot Diaz at Book People, Sept. 4
Trends in fiction come and go just as trends in supposedly less abstract realms come and go; lately a lot of books I've been reading feature wizened teenagers and children who somehow are able to voice truths we would only expect to hear from much more experienced individuals. Junot Diaz's Drown is out of the ordinary for several reasons, but particularly because it captures its young protagonists at their own age, and provides them their own spare language that speaks more effectively than texts in which authors try to pass off their own ideas as their young protagonists'.

When I met Diaz on the day of his reading at BookPeople, and asked him about this phenomenon, he said that many writers will allow their young protagonists to speak beyond their years because the writers themselves were told when young how smart they were, and thus see no problem in allowing their characters the same verbal latitude.

Not so with Diaz. He makes no bones about his development in the Dominican Republic and the fact that no one ever told him how intelligent he was or expected anything out of the ordinary from him; thankfully, his fiction profits. Drown has garnered notices and reviews from around the nation that would send most authors publishing their first collection of short stories straight to heaven, but Diaz, though he acknowledges how welcome that praise is, nonetheless seems propelled to take a step back and hesitate before turning in a new work to Riverhead Books, his publisher. The heady praise he receives seems in conflict with the Drown tone, which, because of its polished austerity, almost turns a cold shoulder to the reader's desire to dive into the narrative. May Diaz be able to do the same with all of his praise.

-- Claiborne K.H. Smith

Mark Wisniewski

If you've ever wondered what a novelist's eyes should look like, take a look at a photograph of Mark Wisniewski. His eyes are steely, precise, and exacting. Having read his successful first novel, Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman before meeting him, I expected no less if only because Confessions, or at least its protagonist, rendered in first person, embodies all those qualities listed above. The novel begins by telling the story of a young boy and his take on the poor Polish grandparents raising him in Milwaukee in the late Fifties. Not much happens to this unnamed kid, but what does happen occurs really out of continual neglect of him. Person after person not so much refuses to take care of him as allows him to make his own headway in the world, and having been fed stories of his missing father's excellence in basically scamming people on used cars and other ventures, scamming is the life work the child rather early on decides to undertake. It's not that it's all downhill from there, it's not -- it's just that newly learned schemes are plot points of sorts as the protagonist learns more and more about his trade until "the big sell" makes its way onto his horizon.

There's no point in telling you more plot-wise as the novel delves into cinematic twists and turns. But by "cinematic" I don't exactly mean mainstream Hollywood; I mean Coen brothers or some other non-experimental but vaguely "abstract" filmmaker. In short, the novel is humorous but troubling, enlightening but cautionary, a liminal, mercurial, but spare take on the scamming business as seen through Polish eyes. Wisniewski himself told me that many readers have compared Confessions to Fargo, and those who have are right on the money. Both works hone in specifically on certain cultures and occupy a space somewhere between uneasy comedy and the vicious drama of low-lifes. What do the Coen brothers' eyes look like?

-- Claiborne K.H.Smith

Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.