"I'm not a bad guy," says Yunior in the very first sentence of "The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars," the very first story in Junot Díaz's collection This Is How You Lose Her. How many times has that thought gone through my head? Díaz seems to know, like many overeducated Latinos of his generation, that the very basis of our masculinity, at least the way it was handed down to us by conquistadores and esclavos alike, is mad perplexing.
He speaks in this case for Dominican men specifically, but Boricuas, Colombianos, Cubanos, Chicanos, etc., we all know who we are: sucios, assholes, and not sure about whether we want to joke about it or beg for forgiveness.
On the surface at least, the recontextualization of machismo, or its self-destruction, done with the precision of a 19th century Spanish zarzuela channeled through Q-Tip and Samuel Delany, is Díaz's project, but ain't no narrative arc without a slammin' subtext.
Here Díaz presents not only the continuing saga of the pride of London Terrace, the definitive Quisqueya Kid Yunior, but further meditations on dispassionate and increasingly empowered objects of desire like Nilda, Alma, Flaca, and the mamiest of many mamis, Miss Lora. All the while breaking down such thorny issues as intra-Latino racism ("they beat the anti-Pura drums daily: Ella es prieta. Ella es fea."); the awfulness of fall semester Boston, and the quiet desperation of newly arrived immigrants.
Trading in the tired travails of tragic mulattos for the high-yellow hijinks of comic book nerds transformed into aging, jaded professors of creative writing, Díaz constructs a world of hybrid Latino identity, an internal dialog that staves off madness rather than plunging you straight into it. Sometimes his prose is sad, whiny, intensely alienated as in the opening story, other times upbeat like a college freshman reveling in multiple sex partners, as in "Alma," his sketch of a trendy alterlatina. There are more tales of Yunior's morose childhood, meditating on his aloof father and desperately lonely mother ("Invierno") and the heartbreaking story of his brother Rafa's awkward battle with cancer ("The Pura Principle.")
These are all subjects Díaz has visited before, but homeboy is getting mucho más serio, more lucid, poetic, and deep into your bones than ever. His ventures into second-person narration have such impeccable flow that it's as if he has let you into a conversation he is having with himself. Except he's talking to you. They are almost unbearable intimacies, as in the line from "Nilda" when she explains that Rafa "used to sleep with my hair over his face. It made him feel safe."
Perhaps the collection's riskiest move is "Otravida, Otravez," written in the voice of a female hospital laundry room worker who describes, with an un-Junot-like solemnity, the strange brew of dislocation and naïve hope that inhabit the thoughts of new immigrants in a forbidding suburban landscape. That New Jersey sprawl dystopia, along with Yunior's zángano bruto father, are the two saddest truths that mark Yunior's acerbic insouciance. But "Otravida" is some serious Woody Allen-foray-into-drama shit; one of those Interiors joints. He pulls it off, serving the extended saga well, but seems slightly out of context with the rest of his work, perhaps a dynamic to be developed in novel 2.
It's hard to tell how his voracious reading—in a recent New York Times Q&A he rattles off influences like Doris Lessing, Alejandro Zambra, Tolkien, and of course the inevitable Bolaño—inhabits every subtle turn of his narrative, even when voiced by the youngest version of Yunior. But when an artist works that hard and you don't notice, it's a sign of greatness. While "Invierno" trades in an obvious metaphor about winter and the relative coldness of white-flighting gringo neighbors, its most enthralling moment is when Díaz revels in the edgy claustrophobia of being alone with a stranger when he has Yunior follow a young girl into an abandoned concrete pipe.
She sat in the pipe, crosslegged and grinning. She took her hands out of her mittens and rubbed them together. We were out of the wind and I followed her example. She poked a finger at me. Yunior, I said. Elaine, she said.
And of course there is Díaz's relentlessly uncompromising Spanglish-dropping. "Dude was figuerando hard." Homegirl had "fly tetas." "Clava saca clavo. Nothing saca nothing." You remember the epigraph from his first collection, "Drown," right? It was a quote from Gustavo Pérez Firmat that went: "The fact that I am writing in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you." Just imagine all those people in Latin America reading this shit in Spanish and losing the code-switching in translation.
If you are one of those ugly bespectacled creatures with an up-your-culo subscription to The New Yorker, you've read many of these tales before, and in my case, re-reading some of these throwdowns reminded me of various etapas of my own sordid post-macho existence. By the time you get to the last story, the one that gives its name to the collection, it's as if he's recapitulating all those ex-girlfriends you had when you read "Nilda," "Flaca," and "The Pura Principle."
"This Is How You Lose Her" is Yunior approaching mid-life crises, blowing it with his casi-comprometida squeeze after she found out he was cheating on her with a hundred million sucias he'd met in the MIT Library or a merengue joint in Mattapan (that's peripheral Boston for you non-Ivy League types). Yunior (the second-person You) gets fat, runs compulsively to lose the pounds, injures his foot, dates a too-young graduate student, and, finally, accompanies a real man—a Dominicano who'd served in Iraq—to the deepest campo in Quisqueya.
Woody Allen pops up again, like that speech Alan Alda makes in Crimes and Misdemeanors when he says "tragedy + time = comedy," a little device Díaz uses when angry white Bostonians repeatedly throw things at him as he's driving or jogging. Sometimes the material is too close to Nuyorican pendejos like me for comfort. I could swear I met Arlenny, Yunior's sounding board for his failed single life, at a book party recently, for instance.
But never is Díaz more profound and honest than when he describes the chaotic beauty of the Dominican campo and shows how it can never be erased from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, multi-vocal, Bahktin-influenced ass. End-of-macho intimations or no, the most beautiful marriage in his literary world would never be between Yunior and his myriad conquests, it is the one between his distillation of the illing, sucker-filled city that gave us hip-hop and Dorothy Parker, and the sweet mango smells and missing teeth of the rural tropical jungle that birthed us.