Great fiction is built around characters that follow the fruitless and wrongheaded paths they're offered, which is how readers savor safe passage into someone else's impetuosity. Yunior, who first appeared in Junot Diaz's debut collection, Drown, is the narrator in several of the stories in the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's third book, This Is How You Lose Her. Yunior is now middle-aged, middle-class, a self-described sucio struggling to mature into adulthood and not succeeding particularly well. Most of the stories here dissect Yunior's reckless behavior, and all of them feature characters with a ham-fisted approach to love. The collection deals in different brands of exile, self-imposed or cultural, by which people are forced to live the paradoxical condition of both needing and rejecting connection.
From a laundry facility supervisor and the freshly emigrated employee looking to grift her way into the American dream to a family negotiating the decline of a charismatic son's health, each story is merciless in its treatment of the heart's desires and defenses. In the last pages of the story "The Cheater's Guide to Love," Yunior examines the Doomsday Book, a folder of material his ex-girlfriend leaves behind after their breakup:
"And finally when you feel like you can do so without blowing into burning atoms, you open a folder ... copies of all the emails and fotos from the cheating days and the ones the ex found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it. Dear Yunior, for your next book."
That "next book" would seem to be the book we have in hand, a book filled with revelations that offer the reader a deeper understanding of how one's history informs one's present.
Diaz banks on the appeal of his characters to balance their less palatable qualities: cruelty, abuse, infidelity. From story to story, he brandishes the force of these voices, almost always to strong effect. This complexity is one of the greatest appeals of Diaz's work.
The dark ferocity of each of these stories and the types of love it portrays is reason enough to celebrate this book. But the collection is also a major contribution to the short story form. Although the title story's ending falls flat, nearly every story exemplifies the beauty of Diaz's minimalist and voice-driven writing. Like his hugely popular and heralded novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the new book is written in a mix of Spanish, pop culture-speak and Americana, and reveals a perplexing web of labor, friendship and family. It is more realist and compressed than Oscar Wao, but Diaz's touch is unmistakable.
In what may be the most poignant story, "Invierno," Diaz tells the tale of a young Yunior and his brother when they've first arrived to the States from the Dominican Republic. It's snowing, but they're forbidden by their father to venture outside. Instead they watch the other children play. Diaz writes, "That night I dreamed of home, that we'd never left. ... Learning to sleep in new places was an ability you were supposed to lose as you grew older, but I never had it." This seems to be the condition of many of the characters in the book, aching to find home in resistant climates.
Yunior might some day rank with Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike's Harry Angstrom as an enduring American literary protagonist who embodies the peculiar struggle men face as they make their way through their lives and the lives of the women they implicate in their folly. Yet Diaz inflects this struggle with the complicated particulars of cultural exile, of want and of the bravado that is born of fear. This Is How You Lose Her is as funny as it is brutal, as complex as it is candid. It is an engrossing, ambitious book for readers who demand of their fiction both emotional precision and linguistic daring.