Lust-lorn quest for in­ti­macy and iden­tity

This is How You Lose Her

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - So­phie Quick So­phie Quick

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

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