Michiko Kakutani reviews ‘This Is How You Lose Her,’ by Junot Díaz for The New York Times.
As his extraordinary 2007 novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” so exuberantly demonstrated, Junot Díaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey.
“Brief Wondrous Life” is, at once, a coming-of-age story; a family portrait; a meditation on the violent legacy of the Trujillo era of the Dominican Republic; a pop-culture, postmodern reflection on the fragmentation of history; and a haunting story about the allure and disappointments of the American dream. It is one of those amazingly inclusive books that seems to embrace everything the author knows, while his new collection of short stories, “This Is How You Lose Her,” is a miniaturist performance — a modest, musically structured riff that works variations on one main subject: a young Dominican man’s womanizing and its emotional fallout.
This character, Yunior, appears to be the same Yunior who narrated “Brief Wondrous Life” and who stars in “Drown,” Mr. Díaz’s critically acclaimed 1996 debut collection of stories. “This Is How You Lose Her” is, in many respects, a kind of bookend to “Drown,” with more strobe-lighted glimpses of Yunior’s life as he tries to juggle girlfriends, pursue a literary career and come to terms with his father, who was absent for much of his childhood. Some of the stories are told in the first person, others in the rather awkward second person.
The strongest tales are those fueled by the verbal energy and magpie language that made “Brief Wondrous Life” so memorable and that capture Yunior’s efforts to commute between two cultures, Dominican and American, while always remaining an outsider. Mr. Díaz evocatively describes Yunior’s affection for Santo Domingo: how he loves “the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway,” loves “the redhead woman on her way to meet the daughter she hasn’t seen in 11 years,” holding gifts on her lap “like the bones of a saint.” He is equally adept at evoking the exotic world of New Jersey that Yunior and his handsome brother, Rafa, are introduced to as children, when their father moves the family to America: the startling spectacle of snow and snowmen, television as an English language teacher, trips to the Pathmark.
In the course of recounting his family’s story Yunior depicts Rafa — who will die of cancer — as “the hardest dude in the nabe”: a nightmare boyfriend who is cruel, even abusive, to the “mad girls in orbit” around him. He also conveys his father’s macho contempt for women in withering terms. At one point Dad dismissively tells Mom that “the average woman can’t learn English.” Yunior tells us that his father used to take him along on visits to girlfriends, leaving him in the car while he ran upstairs for sex, and that his brother used to have sex with girls in the bedroom they shared.
Yunior would like to think of himself as the smarter, more sensitive one — the one with “an I.Q. that would have broken you in two,” the one who plans to become a writer. “I’m not a bad guy,” he protests when his girlfriend Magdalena receives a letter from a woman he’s been seeing — a letter that “hits like a ‘Star Trek’ grenade and detonates everything, past, present, future.” He adds: “I know how that sounds — defensive, unscrupulous — but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.”
In another story, however, after having an affair with a high school teacher, Yunior acknowledges how similar his behavior has been to that of his father and brother: “You had hoped the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself.”
Yunior’s portraits of women are animated by both a condescending machismo and a sort of wistful regret. There’s Alma, “one of those Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alternatinas without whom you might never have lost your virginity,” a woman who reads his journal and discovers that he’s been cheating on her. And there’s Veronica, “white trash from outside of Paterson,” a bookstore-loving “smarty-pants, the kind you don’t find every day,” who tells him he has “to decide where and when” they meet because if it were up to her, she’d want to see him every day.
As for Nilda, Rafa’s Dominican ex-girlfriend, she falls on hard times after his death — in and out of school, beaten up by some girls, sad and alone. Yunior runs into her at a mini-mall Laundromat and thinks for a second that the two of them could start over — go off together, maybe drive to the West Coast. But the moment quickly passes, and he loses track of her after he leaves for college.
“This Is How You Lose Her” doesn’t aspire to be a grand anatomy of love like Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” — which opens out into a luminous meditation on the varieties of love and loss and the persistence of passion — but it gives us a small, revealing window on the subject.
Asked by a friend if she loves her married boyfriend, one of Mr. Díaz’s characters gives this answer: “I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.”
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/books/this-is-how-you-lose-her-by-junot-diaz.html