Junot Diaz is one of those authors who has gained fame (or notoriety) not only for his popular and award-winning fiction but also for his brash persona and expletive-laden interviews. His confidence is well-deserved, as his new collection of short stories, THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, demonstrates from the first page to the last. Several of the stories will be familiar to readers of The New Yorker and other publications, but others are new, and this is the first time that the several loosely linked stories have appeared in the same volume. The result is a realistic, thoughtful exploration of love (and, as the title suggests, love lost), often as funny as it is sad.
"...a realistic, thoughtful exploration of love (and, as the title suggests, love lost), often as funny as it is sad.... Although Yunior is an inveterate cheater, an objectifier of women, and a less than perfect son, it's hard not to like him --- for his honesty, if for nothing else."
Several of the stories focus on a character called Yunior, a young man whose biography seems to mirror Diaz's own. We see Yunior both as a child --- adjusting to winter in the unpleasant New Jersey neighborhood where his family settles after emigrating from the Dominican Republic --- and as a young man, both during and after his older brother's illness and eventual death from leukemia. Yunior both idolizes and eventually reviles his older brother, and although he'd probably never admit it, he learns much of his attitude and behavior toward women both from his brother and from his philandering father. "Both your father and your brother were sucios," Diaz's narrator writes of Yunior, "Sucios of the worst kind and now it's official: you are one, too."
Their father eventually leaves the family, and their mother's endless mourning --- over the loss of her homeland, her husband, and eventually her son --- is a consistent backdrop to Yunior's tales of his own youthful bad behavior. Diaz's depiction of women is both lustful and affectionately realistic; a woman who is at first described as having a "slash of black hair" and "a chest you wouldn't believe --- I'm talking world-class" is described on the next page as being "one of those quiet, semi-retarded girls" and as having "big stupid lips and a sad moonface and the driest skin." Likewise, the older neighbor with whom Yunior later starts a love affair is described as almost mannish in appearance even as it's clear that Yunior feels a strong sexual attraction toward her.
Although Yunior is an inveterate cheater, an objectifier of women, and a less than perfect son, it's hard not to like him --- for his honesty, if for nothing else. His bravado often masks a vulnerability that, when it does come to the surface, results in moments of tender loveliness: "We park across from the map dealer and go to our bookstore… You sit yourself down in an aisle and start searching through the boxes… You're the only person I've ever met who can stand a bookstore as long as I can. A smartypants, the kind you don't find every day." Of course, this relationship, as seemingly right and respectful as Yunior can achieve, is still doomed to failure. But that doesn't mean readers stop rooting for him, or for the other profoundly sympathetic characters who populate Diaz's stories.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 14, 2012