Above all, there’s the centaur voice, the spawn of an unnatural union between a housing project and the Great Books curriculum. It has been compared to early Bellow, but one wonders if late Roth — like Junot Díaz, a Jersey boy with an abiding interest in sexual transgression — influenced the shaping of these zestful sentences.
This is a niggling, pedantic matter to Díaz’s devoted fans, who will welcome the chance to immerse themselves in the comforting familiarity of his fluid prose. But if This is How You Lose Her breeds any contempt, it will be due to its repetitive elements, its variations on a theme, which energetically explore ethnicity and the immigrant experience within the poignant context of a broken heart.
Eight of the nine stories in this collection feature Yunior, a recurring figure in Díaz’s fiction and the hero of Drown, his universally acclaimed debut. In the Pulitzer-winning bestseller The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he was the semi-participating narrator. The youngest child of struggling Dominican immigrants, Yunior grew up to become a streetwise intellectual, a weightlifting writer who shows more sensitivity on the page than toward his girlfriends, a mixed assortment of Latinas — with one Nordic exception — he compulsively betrays. The roots of his self-destructive behavior appear to be cultural, a subservience to macho expectations from which Yunior, despite the breadth of his reading, cannot free himself.
But mention must first be made of the single non-Yunior story, Otravida, Otravez, which is told from the point of view of Yasmin, a Dominican laundry drone in New York who is involved with a married man. I believe this is the second time Díaz has inhabited a female persona (the other was Lola, Oscar Wao’s sister). For someone who has devoted a good deal of his life to observing and documenting the psychology of the penis, he delivers a convincing account of a strong-willed woman determined not to let the land of the gringos wear her down.
When Yasmin and her lover move into a house, they finally feel like they belong here. “To own a house in this country is to begin to live,” she says. In Invierno, however, a house is turned into a prison. After bringing his family over, Yunior’s tyrannical father forbids his sons from setting foot outside. But one night, while he is away tomcatting, his lonely wife takes pity on the frustrated boys and shares with them a beautiful, memorable moment.
Years later, the three find themselves at loggerheads in The Pura Principle. Rafa, Yunior’s older brother, is dying of cancer. An ex-boxer, he intends to leave the ring on his own terms. He acts atrociously to his mother and treats his numerous hookups with pathological disdain. Rafa is not likable, but there is something perversely inspiring about the defiant, mad dynamism of his final days.
Yunior’s attitude toward women, however, is this book’s primary concern. In The Sun, the Moon, the Stars, he tries unsuccessfully to salvage things with his Cuban girlfriend, whom he of course cheated on, by taking her on a trip to the Dominican Republic. Díaz’s description of their beachside resort is damning and funny. At Casa de Campo, “the only Island Dominicans you’re guaranteed to see are either caked up or changing your sheets … [T]here’s a massive melanin deficit in evidence. Every fifty feet there’s at least one Eurof--k beached out on a towel like some scary pale monster that the sea’s vomited up.”
Two stories, Flaca and Alma, also discuss breakups, but they are little more than sketches. Miss Lora is a captivating account of Yunior’s underage affair with a teacher, a well-toned Señora Robinson.
But The Cheater’s Guide to Love stands out from the rest. This propulsive second-person narrative covers a five-year-long downward spiral that begins when Yunior’s fiancée discovers the “sucias,” skanks, he has kept on the side. Losing her exacts a physical, emotional, and professional toll. This is how Yunior feels: “Like someone flew a plane into your soul. Like someone flew two planes into your soul.” And yet he doesn’t learn his lesson; as his world falls apart, he continues to involve himself in unhealthy relationships.
Although it breaks no new ground, This Is How You Lose Her is an entertaining and satisfying addition to a slender but vital body of work that has helped to nudge our nation’s literature in an inclusive direction.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.