Lust-lorn quest for intimacy and identity
This is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz Faber & Faber, 224pp, $27.99
DOMINICAN-AMERICAN author Junot Diaz has won a Pulitzer prize, a PEN/ Malamud short-story award, a PEN/O Henry short-story award and a Dayton Literary Peace prize. It’s a list of accolades that suggests a writer of industrial-strength gravitas.
After all, the Pulitzer prize for fiction is an award so serious judges this year couldn’t find a single book worthy of the honour. PEN International is an indispensable though not exactly fun-loving institution: a human rights organisation whose charter is to protect writers’ freedom of expression. And John Grisham is probably never going to win a literary prize with ‘‘ peace’’ in the title.
But Diaz’s impressive curriculum vitae creates a slightly misleading impression. While his writing is certainly ambitious and political, it is also characterised by a distinctive street sensibility; a voice that’s funny, frisky and exuberant.
Diaz’s third book, This is How You Lose Her, is a collection of short stories very much consistent with his signature style. Readers of his earlier work will recognise a familiar cast of characters, especially Yunior, who was the central figure in the stories in Diaz’s debut short-story collection Drown (1996) and also the narrator in the Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).
Yunior shares many autobiographical details with Diaz: he’s an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who arrives in America as a child and grows up in industrial New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s.
In This is How You Lose Her , Diaz also is returning to familiar themes: the complex racial and sexual ecosystem these firstgeneration Dominican-Americans inhabit in their adopted home and their inescapable ties to their homeland.
The stories in this collection find Yunior at various life stages from childhood up to his adulthood in the present day.
Diaz does not disappoint. These are skillfully told stories, liberally seasoned with Spanglish slang, that dart between hilarious and heart-wrenching. A source of much of the conflict as well as the humour in this book is the helpless hypersexuality that plagues Yunior and the men in his family.
In The Sun, the Moon, the Stars the philandering Yunior attempts a reconciliation with his girlfriend on a holiday back to Santo Domingo; in Alma Yunior cheats on his university girlfriend; in Miss Lora the teenage Yunior two-times his Puerto Rican girl with an older woman; and in The Cheater’s Guide to Love, the grown-up, still cheating Yunior is dumped by his fiancee.
Alma is the shortest and funniest of these, told in the second person, as though an older Yunior is addressing his unfaithful younger self. The first sentence sees the narrator wagging his finger and relishing his earlier conquests: ‘‘ You, Yunior, have a girlfriend named Alma, who has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans.’’
It’s a device that underscores a fatalism shared by male and female characters across many of the stories. Dominican men, it seems, just cannot help themselves. As for women, they’re usually described by Yunior in enthusiastic but diminishing terms. Like Alma, they often have novelty-sized body parts, as though they’re cartoons rather than real people.
But in Yunior’s telling of his tales we see a sadder truth: part of him craves intimacy, but he’s locked into a cliched machismo he knows precludes it. At the end of Alma, when his girlfriend confronts him with evidence of his cheating, Yunior tries to squirm out of it with an appalling excuse: Instead of lowering your head and copping to it like a man, you pick up the journal as one might hold a baby’s beshatted diaper, as one might pinch a recently benutted condom. You glance at the offending passages. Then you look at her and smile a smile your dissembling face will remember until the day you die.
Not all the stories focus on Yunior’s romantic misadventures. Some explore his family. These highlight the poverty of firstgeneration Dominican-Americans and contain some of the book’s darkest moments. Desperate people commit casual cruelties and toxic silences fester between people living at oppressively close quarters. One of these, Otravida, Otravez, is told from the perspective of one of Yunior’s father’s other women. While it’s a bleak and beautiful piece, it suffers from the contrast with Yunior’s more forceful voice.
The final story, The Cheater’s Guide to Love , chronicles Yunior’s five-year recovery from heartbreak. It’s a tale of regret and eventual reawakening. But Diaz isn’t the kind of writer who has to build a multi-level irony park out of this well-worn story and then reverse into it. He’s a subtle storyteller whose prose is irresistible. He plays it straight and pulls it off.
Award-winning writer Junot Diaz