Welcome to the Dominican US: This is How You Lose Her

X061_37EA_9.JPGLast year I read Junot Diaz’s Drown and loved it. I picked up his latest collection of short stories a few weeks ago and found myself agape at how good a writer Diaz is yet again. This Is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown left off, addressing the middle years of Yunior, the irrepressible and oh-so-human Dominican boy who becomes a tenured English professor. Normally, the professor/writer bit would turn me off as it can easily become self-indulgent and uninteresting, but Diaz keeps his focus on Yunior’s character and the changing dynamics of his family and love life. Most of the stories in the collection are linked in some way, but I’m not certain that Diaz intends an overall narrative to all the stories. Instead, I believe they are more like windows into one New York Dominican community.  That being said, the central event in most of the stories is Rafa’s losing bout with cancer. Yunior’s older brother is even more of a womanizer than he is, yet there is something incredibly heart-breaking about his slow descent towards death. That Diaz can get me feeling sympathy for a character who has no qualms sleeping with as many girls as possible is no small feat. Similarly, Yunior is a complex character as he seems to inherit his brother’s philandering ways. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is an amazing story about Yunior’s long road to recovery after his long-term girlfriend finds out he has been cheating on her with many different women.

What is equally impressive about the story is that it is told entirely in the second person. I have rarely encountered this mode of story-telling and have often wondered how effective it could be. Diaz makes it clear that it can be very effective as I found myself continually identifying with Yunior even though our personalities are so vastly different. He also uses this style of narration for “Miss Lora,” although I felt like this story was less effective as the schoolteacher Miss Lora becomes a figure of sorrow more than anything (also the story riffs on The Graduate in a serious way). The rest of the stories employ a first person narrator, a style that Diaz seems to favor.

One story that stood out to me was “Otravida, Otravez” which is narrated by a female character. This stands out from Yunior’s story because the perspective is so radically different. It adds a counterweight to the somewhat overwhelming obsession with women that the other stories feature. The protagonist is in love with a man who has a wife back in the Dominican but wants to buy a house with the narrator in New York. The house becomes a sign of making it in America and there is plenty of tension and desire in the narrative. I can see how some readers might not have liked this story, but for me it shows that Diaz is not a one-trick pony writing stories about sexually-charged young Dominican men.

I would highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction as Diaz shows an impressive range of narrative skill here. However, he may not appeal to all readers because he adopts a crass and crude tone throughout his stories. The best introduction to his work might be to read one of his stories on The New Yorker‘s website.

Diaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. Print.



Well Worth Picking Up: Drown

8469_jpg_280x450_q85Junot Diaz’s Drown is a short collection of short stories, but it is well worth your time. Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is an American writer with very strong ties to the Dominican Republic. This comes through throughout Drown as the characters are almost all Dominican and move about in the Dominican immigrant community. Diaz’s writing is almost informal and casual but this belies the emotional complexity that underpins each story as his characters struggle through living in the United States as a FOB (Fresh off the boat), homesickness, language issues, and poverty. There is Spanish sprinkled liberally on every page but Diaz includes a short glossary at the back (and what isn’t covered by this makes sense contextually).

Drown was Diaz’s first publication and it is very well put together. Where some short story collections feel like a disparate group of pieces, Drown has not only thematic unity but also an over-arching unity. The central character, Yunior, is the younger of two brothers whose father immigrated to the US many years earlier and only now brings over his (estranged) family. He had been cheating on his wife before, had to get married to get citizenship in order to bring his family over, and once they arrive cheats with another woman. So, Papi is a bad guy. However, the final story in the book, “Negocios” (Spanish for businesses), tells Papi’s side of the story and Diaz pulls out all the stops to make readers empathize with the father. This doesn’t make him a good guy, but it does give him a more depth and a greater sense of humanity.

I should also warn you that Drown is rough around the edges. Several stories deal with violence, drug dealing and using, sexual abuse, and there is language throughout. This does not take away from Drown‘s impact but is a central part of it. Yunior lives in a violent world because poverty is everywhere, not just in the Dominican ghettoes of New York but also back in the Dominican Republic.

If I had to pick a favourite story, it would be either “Negocios” or “Edison, New Jersey.” The latter story deals with a pair of pool-table delivery men who travel into the swanky, elite neighbourhoods of New York to set up expensive tables. The dialogue between Wayne and the unnamed narrator (possibly Yunior) is quite witty and fleshes out the conflicted world of race relations between low-paid Latin American workers and the wealthy whites who purchase the tables. The heart of the story deals with the narrator’s interactions with a Dominican domestic at one of the homes. She is possibly an illegal immigrant and is caught in a much worse position than the narrator. The narrator takes her back to the Dominican neighbourhood to help her escape her problem only to nearly lose his job. I liked this story because it was emotionally compelling and dealt with the difficulties of living in a “multicultural” US. “Edison, New Jersey” shows a very different side of the American Dream, one that is probably more realistic than the high dreams that most American immigrants have when arriving in the country.

I would highly recommend Drown to any lover of short fiction.

Diaz, Junot. Drown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.