Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
There are some writers whose lack of output is incredibly frustrating. We love everything you write, readers beg, give us more! But they only give us more when a blue moon comes around. Junot Díaz is one of these writers. Showered with praise after the publication of Drown in the late nineties, it took about ten years before Díaz published his long-awaited novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the National Book Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize, bringing Díaz eternal literary fame. Since then, he’s mostly been mum, save for publishing stories in the New Yorker, most of which are in his new story collection, This is How You Lose Her. The writing in this book is so mind-blowing, you have no choice but to forgive Díaz for not publishing more frequently.
In the stories of This is How You Lose Her, Díaz’s alter-ego Yunior returns to his usual material: the New Jersey ghetto, the Dominican immigrant experience, the missing father, violence, and sex. You’d think that if there is one theme running through these stories, it would be cheating. But actually, it’s women, not only the dumb things men do to lose them.
In the story “Sun, Moon, Stars,” the woman is Magda, a teacher, a nice girl from Jersey. Nice, that is, until Yunior cheats on her with Cassandra, who sends Magda an incriminating and detailed letter. Afterward, their relationship goes so cold even a vacation to the hot Dominican Republic can’t save it.
“Nilda” is the girlfriend of Yunior’s brother Rafa, a psychotic so violent he’s feared in an extremely violent neighborhood. A troubled girl—“brown trash” with a “mean-ass drunk” mother—Nilda lives in a home for runaways, and confides in Yunior. At this time, Yunior is still a good guy—he’s good because he’s ugly, a nerd, and hopelessly romantic: “I had an IQ that would have broken you in two but I would have traded it in for a halfway decent face in a second.” In high school, Yunior was an obsessive weight-lifter, an obsessive pot smoker, an obsessive reader of comics and fantasy, and obsessed with girls. “Nilda” shows Yunior at his most vulnerable, and because of the story’s autobiographical honesty, it is also Díaz at his most moving: “In this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”
“Alma” is so short and so strong that it’s almost not fair; how can a writer be this good? Sexy and Dominican, Alma does “white-girl things,” like letting Yunior come on her tits. But of course Yunior can’t keep his rabo out of other girls’ culos, and to make matters worse, he writes about his exploits in his journal, which Alma reads. She doesn’t believe that the sex scenes are notes for his novel, and Yunior loses her. What makes Díaz one of the best—if not The Best—short story writers today is the power of his unique turns of phrase and the original language of his physical descriptions: Alma “has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.” Who can match that?
“Otravida, Otravez” brings readers into new Díaz territory. The story’s narrator is not Yunior but Yasmin, and she is the other woman. Yasmin works at a hospital and lives with a man whose wife is still in the DR. It’s a story aiming for pathos, about the difficult life of an immigrant in a cold, strange country, and though it proves versatility it doesn’t hit as hard as the stories written with Díaz’ signature perspective. Perhaps the story doesn’t seem as autobiographically honest, because when Díaz writes with brutal, self-effacing honesty is when he is at the top of his game.
In “Flaca” we see the arrival of the adult Yunior. He dates Veronica, another teacher, for two years, even though he “never claimed” her. He’s no longer a hopeless romantic, now keeping women at arm’s distance, or at least far enough away to allow him to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother, whom he describes as “sucios of the worst kind,” fucking everything that moves.
We get a glimpse of Yunior’s usually absent father in the story “Invierno,” which is about Yunior’s first winter in the U.S. For Rafa and Yunior, “school” is watching eight or nine hours of television. Yunior tries to play in the snow with other children, but no one understands him because he only speaks Spanish, and the neighborhood is still mostly white. Their father, an ex-boxer, is a scary drinker who never lets his family outside. He tells his sons to not look at him. He’s a stranger. Yunior’s mother is the woman of this story, obedient and subservient, while her husband disappears for “work” for days at a time.
In “The Pura Principle,” Rafa is dying of cancer, but rather than go quietly, Rafa causes problems for Yunior and their mother, particularly by marrying Pura. Unlike Yunior and Rafa, Pura is “a Dominican Dominican,” as in “fresh-off-the-boat-didn’t-have-no-papers Dominican.” Though wasting away, Rafa is still the “neighborhood lunatic,” smashing faces with hammers and throwing Yale padlocks at heads. Despite his horrible behavior, Rafa is still their mother’s favorite.
“Miss Lora” takes place soon after Rafa dies. Still in high school, Yunior cheats on Paloma, his hardworking, cautious girlfriend, with his neighbor, the single, childless, forty-something Miss Lora. Things get sticky when Miss Lora starts teaching at Yunior’s school and they don’t stop fucking. Yunior’s girlfriend moves away, and Lora encourages Yunior to apply for college. “Miss Lora” claims the best exchange in the collection: In Yunior’s mother’s mind, a childless woman must be messed up. When Yunior suggests that “maybe she just doesn’t like children,” his mother assures him that “nobody likes children. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to have them.”
The final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is certainly the best, both of the collection and of all the stories published in the New Yorker this year. (One story of Díaz’s stories, “Monstro,” didn’t make it into this collection, perhaps because of it’s sci-fi slant.) In “Cheater’s Guide,” Yunior is in his late thirties, living in a racist Boston, and teaching creative writing at MIT, just like his alter-ego. The story covers the five-year period it takes for Yunior to get over a bad break up. This time, it’s a fiancé he lost, not just a girlfriend, but as usual, it’s because she finds out about his other women—fifty women this time, to be exact, fifty over the course of their six year relationship. Here, we see Yunior at his lowest and most vulnerable. He initially tries to fuck his way out of depression, he puts on fifty pounds, he becomes obsessed with running, but after an injury turns that obsession toward yoga: “The namaste bullshit you could do without, but you fall into it and soon you’re pulling vinyasas with the best of them.”
This story brings the rest together, making the collection form a cohesive work, with the unifying thread of maturation. The first story begins with the confession, “I’m not a bad guy. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good,” and in the last story we have: “you swore you wouldn’t do it. And you did.” As Yunior tries to recover from the break-up, shit goes wrong, again and again, physically, professionally, and emotionally, as if he’s taking on all his bad karma at once. But then, after five years, he feels he has “woken up from the worst fever of your life” and that he can start again. Finally, we feel that Yunior has learned his lesson, and won’t make the same mistakes. Sure, he could be duping us like all his girlfriends, but it seems Yunior has finally matured.
At age 43, karma seems to be on Díaz’s side; upon the release of This is How You Lose Her, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship. Known as the “Genius Grant,” the MacArthur is a $500,000 award given every five years to ultra-talented people in order to foster intellectual and artistic freedom, no strings attached. Now, Díaz can do whatever he wants. With this boon, we’ll be eagerly awaiting for what he comes out with next, and we’ll probably be waiting for a very long time. But, with writing as good as his, that’s okay.
Riverhead, September 2012