"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.