From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
The nine stories in Junot Diaz’s new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, are compulsively readable. Which is probably not surprising considering the main character in most of them is a compulsive cheater whose casual attitude toward sex with women is frequently at odds with those of his more monogamy-minded girlfriends.
“I’m not a bad guy,” Yunior, our Dominican Don Juan, intones in the opening lines of the first story. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because is it. Yunior was a character in Diaz’s first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao–an equally fast-paced, pop-culture infused portrait of Dominican-American life that you should probably pick up now if you haven’t read it. In these stories, Yunior now takes center stage, recounting his adventures and misadventures in love (as well as his family life) and often employing the second-person perspective to literally put you in his shoes.
It’s this particular style, packed with Dominican slang and comic book references, that takes your standard boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl narrative and transforms it into something fresh. Stories like “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” (in which Yunior uses a beach trip as a last-ditch effort to save a relationship), the brief “Alma” (named after the girl who dumps the cheating Yunior with a string of foul language), and “Miss Lora” (detailing Yunior’s fling with an older neighbor) are three powerful examples of Diaz’s masterful tone and dialogue at work.
But if you only had to pick two stories to read before flipping on to something else (the only drawback to short story collections being the ease with which they can be put aside–and sometimes forgotten), they should be “The Pura Principle” and the collection’s final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” In the former, the focus is on Yunior’s brother, Rafa, who’s dying of cancer and throwing himself into a quick marriage with a woman despised by his mother. The later is a year-by-year account of Yunior’s life after the most cataclysmic breakup in all of these stories. It’s a painful and honest account:
You stop sleeping, and some night when you’re drunk and alone you have a wacky impulse to open the window of your fifth-floor apartment and leap down to the street. If it wasn’t for a couple of things you probably would have done it, too. But (a) you ain’t the killing-yourself type; (b) your boy Elvis keeps a strong eye on you–he’s over all the time, stands by the window as if he knows what you’re thinking. And (c) you have this ridiculous hope that maybe one day she will forgive you.
Is there any hope for Yunior? How do compulsive cheaters find some sort of absolution? There are no solid answers here. Yunior may not be a villain — but he’s certainly got his fair share of troubles. And the record of his messy love life makes for some great reading.