Sixteen years ago, Junot Diaz enchanted the literary world with his debut collection, “Drown,” and its narrator Yunior, the prototypical Dominican American male negotiating the no-man’s land between boyhood and adulthood, and between a lost homeland and the housing projects of Edison, New Jersey. Diaz has been working with Yunior ever since, as in his latest collection, “This is How You Lose Her.”
“It took me sixteen years to write,” Diaz admitted to students at Columbia College Chicago when he visited recently as part of a thirty-city whirlwind tour. “Any art worth its name requires you to be fundamentally lost for a very long time.”
That stretch between these two collections was anything but idle, and Yunior was not in hiding. Diaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” published in 2007, featured Oscar, an overweight geek virgin hopelessly in love. Though he is the antithesis of Yunior, of the Dominican male archetype, guess who’s telling this heroic tale of love and heartbreak, of Oscar and the Dominican Republic? Yunior de Las Casas, the same Yunior from “Drown” and “This is How You Lose Her.”
This device is not new, from Updike’s “Rabbit” to many genre series, but Diaz’s Yunior feels so familiar because his contradictions are so familiar.
“I’m not a bad guy,” he says at the onset of the collection. No, none of us ever are, Yunior. Throughout, it’s as if he’s telling himself as much as us, not justifying his infidelities and inconsistencies so much as trying to understand it so he can be better.
“Yunior allows me to not only represent a certain amount of Dominican, New Jersey, of-African-descent male subjectivity,” Diaz explained to the crowd. “But he is so freakishly honest and personally duplicitous that he strikes me as very emblematic.”
In the opener, “The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars,” Yunior brings his girlfriend to the Dominican Republic in a last-ditch attempt to salvage whatever had been good before he started cheating. He loves her like his homeland, destined to stray, but compelled to return, except Magda is no island and Yunior is no innocent.
This desire to be loved but to be incapable of loving is a theme close to Diaz’s heart. Raised in a military and immigrant family, Diaz experienced the “hypersexualization of males” in the household. “If you grew up the way I did, you’re trained that the essence of masculinity is a lack of vulnerability,” Diaz explained. “You’re trained not to be vulnerable but love requires vulnerability. As an artist I’m fascinated by this shit.”
It shows. A professor at MIT and co-founder of VONA for writers of color, the self-professed geek and literary heartthrob known as Junot Diaz is no stranger to contradiction. It’s what makes Yunior so distinct, singular, original and human. “I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good,” Yunior says. Since “Drown,” Yunior has grown, and because the stories are less about familial love than intimate love, he grapples with the trappings of being, “a sucio, an asshole,” as he’s called by one betrayed lover.
Yunior’s contradictions—and Diaz’s worthy reputation—are most engaging on the level of language. Only Diaz’s Yunior could make something as terrible as Rafa’s cancer and his mother’s grief into something comic. “She’d never been big on church before but as we landed on cancer planet she went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she had one handy. That last year she was especially Ave Maria.”
If there is any doubt if Diaz can write beyond Yunior, then doubters get a swift bitch slap in “Otravida, Otravez,” the one story that may seem like an aberration or a departure from Yunior. A young Dominican woman manages a laundry room in a hospital while waiting out the winters for her man to decide to forever forget his wife back on the island. Yet Yunior is still present; Diaz admits to layering the story, “for the grad students who have to read my shit seven or eight times.” To say more would be to spoil their fun.
Intellectual and slangy, sincere but self-deluded, Yunior transcends honesty into that realm that is much more human: authenticity. Through Diaz, Yunior is stamped with the trademark of the best storytellers—the art of bullshitting devoid of any bullshitting, yet as a character he bullshits his way through every relationship.
Four of the stories are told in the second person, but only “Flaca” is addressed to one of the girls who got away from Yunior. In “Alma,” “Miss Lora,” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” it’s as if Yunior is reproaching Yunior for his infidelities and bad choices. This expiation or catharsis takes six years in “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” six years of grieving by chasing student and yoga ass, but the heartbreak is so strong that his body begins to break down. It’s a fitting end to the latest chapter in Yunior’s narrative life. (Robert Duffer)
“This Is How You Lose Her”
by Junot Diaz
Riverhead, 224 pages, $26.95