Very few first novels have received the praise and accolades that went to Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a lyrical, one-of-a-kind novel that not only was a bestseller but also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
One of the narrators of that book, Yunior, returns to narrate the nine linked stories of Diaz’s impressive new story collection, “This Is How You Lose Her.” In the first story, Yunior claims, “I’m not a bad guy. . . . I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” His girlfriend, Magda, however, considers him an untrustworthy philanderer, and her suspicions are confirmed when she receives a letter from Cassandra, one of his co-workers, detailing Yunior’s one-night stand with her. “The Letter hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything, past, present, future. Suddenly her folks want to kill me.” Her father even tells Yunior over the phone, “You no deserve I speak to you in Spanish.”
Magda is both stubborn and sensitive, “takes to hurt the way water takes to paper,” and so in retaliation she changes: “Cuts her hair, buys better makeup, rocks new clothes, goes out dancing on Friday nights with her friends. When I ask her if we can chill, I’m no longer sure it’s a done deal. A lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, No, I’d rather not. I ask her what the hell she thinks this is and she says, That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Wooing her and hoping for redemption, Yunior splurges on a vacation to Casa de Campo in Santo Domingo, “The Resort That Shame Forgot.” The Casa “has got beaches the way the rest of the Island has got problems. These, though, have no merengue, no little kids, nobody trying to sell you chicharrones, and there’s a massive melanin deficit in evidence,” with Europeans who “look like philosophy professors, like budget Foucaults.”
Meanwhile, “Magda’s rocking a dope Ochun-colored bikini that her girls helped her pick out so she could torture me,” and “every time I dip into the water for a swim, some Mediterranean Messenger of Love starts rapping to her.”
At a resort party that night, Magda announces, “Time for you to do your thing and me to do mine.” So Yunior loiters at a bar where he meets a high government official and his bodyguard, and on the following night they take him to “the birthplace of our nation,” a remote, bauxite hole in the ground called “the Cave of the Jagua.” Hanging upside down inside it, Yunior scans a flashlight beam over “some odd colors on the eroded walls,” and thinks, “This is the perfect place for insight, for a person to become somebody better.” Instead, he finds himself remembering meeting Magda at a Rutgers bus stop. “And that’s when I know it’s over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”
“The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” provides the pattern for most of the stories that feature Yunior, a pining, self-lacerating, weed-smoking schmo who confuses lust with love and generally wrecks his relationships with jealousy, infidelity, machismo or the sheer inability to act.
And repeatedly the women in these stories look past him or vex him with their recriminations and fury. There’s Nilda, the girlfriend of his dying older brother Rafa. “On Thursdays, which was comic-book day, she’d drop in to see what I’d picked up and she’d talk to me about how unhappy she was. . . . Sometimes I could grab her and pull her back on the couch, and we’d stay there a long time, me waiting for her to fall in love with me, her waiting for whatever, but other times she’d be serious. I have to go see my man, she’d say.”
There’s Alma, a painter and only the third Latina Yunior ever really dated. She discovers his journal and reads that he has been having an affair with a beautiful freshman girl from Guyana. Addressing himself, Yunior notes, “You are overwhelmed by a pelagic sadness. Sadness at being caught, at the incontrovertible knowledge that she will never forgive you.” Seeking a way out, Yunior looks at the journal, then smiles. “Baby, you say, baby, this is part of my novel.”
“This is how you lose her.”
The final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” chronicles Yunior’s dismal, exhaustive, funny five-year effort to get over the loss of a fiancee who leaves him after looking through his e-mail trash and finding out that he’d been having sex with no fewer than 50 women over their six years together. That is also how you lose her.
Like Yunior, Junot Diaz was born in Santo Domingo, left for New Jersey at 6 to join his frequently absent and unfaithful father, and grew up in an immigrant ghetto among others who were “fresh-off-the-boat-didn’t-have-no-papers Dominican.” Reading saved him, and he graduated from Rutgers, received an advanced degree from Cornell, and now teaches creative writing at MIT.
“Drown,” his 1996 collection of stories, was widely praised for its verve and searing honesty. Readers of that and his “Star Trek grenade” of a novel will find much to love in “This Is How You Lose Her.” Written in a singular idiom of Spanglish, hip-hop poetry and professorial erudition, it is comic in its mopiness, charming in its madness and irresistible in its heartfelt yearning.
Hansen’s latest collection, “She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories,” will be published in November. Junot Diaz will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Sept. 23.
THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER
By Junot Diaz
Riverhead. 213 pp. $26.95