America’s best living short-story writer gives equal time to bad-boy cheaters and the cheated-on. Sam Sacks reviews Junot Díaz’s new book for The Wall Street Journal.
There are two things to know about Junot Díaz. The first is that he is one of the most agonizingly slow writers to ever lay finger to laptop. His debut, the scintillating story collection “Drown,” was published in 1996, and from then on his admirers have had to wait with Job-like endurance. His next book, the novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” appeared in 2007. (It won the Pulitzer Prize but, for all its patches of brilliance, felt rough and cobbled together.) Now Mr. Díaz reappears with “This Is How You Lose Her” (Riverhead, 213 pages, $26.95), a slim collection of nine stories that has been in the offing for well over a decade. Some of them ran in the New Yorker during the Clinton administration.
But the second thing dwarfs the first: Mr. Díaz is America’s best living short-story writer. His gifts of character portrayal and his sui generis writing voice will link his name with the country’s anthologizable greats, from Raymond Carver to John Cheever to Eudora Welty.
Despite the long interval, “This Is How You Lose Her” takes up right where “Drown” left off. Most of the stories are about Yunior Urbano, a book-smart Dominican-American prone to lovesickness and possessing “an IQ that would have broken you in two.” He grows up in a New Jersey housing project with his mother and brother, with whom he immigrated as a child. (His father left them for a mistress after bringing them into the country.)
Yunior is Mr. Díaz’s fictional alter ego, but the stories he narrates are always more than raw autobiography. Yunior’s family and various girlfriends are every bit as filled-in and troublesomely alive as he is.
Mr. Díaz’s female characters—many of them women that Yunior cheats on—are especially vivid. There is Magda from “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” a sensitive Catholic girl who “takes to hurt the way water takes to paper.” Alma, from the story that shares her name, is a “Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alternatina.” Yasmin, from “Otravida, Otravez,” works in a hospital laundry room cleaning bloodstains from bedsheets and is torn between toiling in the U.S. or returning in defeat to the Dominican Republic, “which you never think of until it’s gone, which you never love until it’s no longer there.”
The egalitarian attention to the side-characters creates a sense of multiplicity in the stories, the feeling that each story is capturing the moment of intersection of two or more discrete and fully realized individuals.
“Nilda,” for instance, takes place when Yunior is a bewildered, sci-fi-obsessed high schooler. His wild, dropout older brother Rafa takes up with Nilda, a veteran of group homes and abusive boyfriends who has the body of an adult and the mind of a child. Then Rafa is diagnosed with cancer. Employing no obvious technical tricks, Mr. Díaz conveys the diverging fortunes of all three characters—Rafa’s abrupt decline into illness, Yunior’s darkened coming of age and Nilda’s merciless drift back to the streets.
One of the joys of the book is Mr. Díaz’s singular writing voice, a vernacular Spanglish that runs easily to a kind of jazz poetry. Here is how he describes Pura, a “fresh-off-the-boat-didn’t-have-no-papers Dominican” from the collection’s symphonic masterpiece, “The Pura Principle”: “Guapísima as hell: tall and indiecita, with huge feet and an incredibly soulful face, but unlike your average hood hottie Pura seemed not to know what to do with her fineness, was sincerely lost in all the pulchritude.”
Mr. Diaz subtly winds together the story’s different threads. Clearly gold-digging, Pura marries Rafa while he is in the late stages of cancer, incurring the wrath of his and Yunior’s mother. A specter in “Drown,” Mrs. Urbano acquires heartbreaking dimensions in “This Is How You Lose Her”—a pious, hardworking woman in exile, abandoned by her husband to raise two ungrateful children, one of whom is dying. Unlike so much fiction that centers on boys behaving badly, “This Is How You Lose Her” gives equal time to the cheated-on.
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