You are a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a master of things that freak other authors right out – namely the second person, sex, humour, minimalism. You blend English, Spanish, obscure science-fiction-related nerd humour and the vernacular of the street in a way that doesn’t sound like a cheap ploy for attention or statement of realness. You are Dominican-American Junot Díaz, and you are a master of voice and tone. You claim to write slowly – this book took you 16 years – but the pacing of every story is lightning quick. But you wouldn’t use a cliché like lightning quick.
Yunior, who is possibly your alter ego, whom you have described as a “polymathic voice,” was the narrator of your tremendously successful first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior also narrates many of the stories in This is How You Lose Her and your first collection, Drown. Somehow, you know you are not going to be accused of repeating yourself, or ripping yourself off, or not challenging yourself, because you are that good. You know there is much more material to mine, probably a career’s worth.
You know how to make use of creative obsessions. You know it doesn’t matter. You are one of those authors that make creative writing teachers say, “Well, these are the rules, but you can break them if you’re exceptionally talented.”
You do not need another fawning book review that describes the scope of the entire book. Here, instead, is a review of each story:
The Sun, The Moon, The Stars
Yunior loves Magda, a nerdish teacher with “a big mouth and big hips and dark curly hair you could lose a hand in.” Doesn’t mean he didn’t cheat on her with a “chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair” who decided to write Magda a letter about said cheating. When Magda needs space, Yunior is the kind of guy who will pout, repeat I’m not a bad guy while simultaneously cruising the resort bar for his next conquest. You will hate him at first, but by the time he is crying in a cave with a pair of gangster Dominican Republic politicians, you may begin to feel the start of many itchy, conflicted feelings of empathy for dear Yunior.
Nilda was once a quiet girl who read The New Mutants and now she wears tight Iron Maiden shirts and has sex with Yunior’s brother in the bed next to him. We learn more about Rafa and how his death affected Yunior, through the telling of his crush on Nilda that transforms over the years.
Alma gets one of the funniest descriptions in the book: “one of those Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alternatinas without whom you might never have lost your virginity.” When Yunior is caught cheating, again, he is “overwhelmed by a pelagic sadness.” When presented with his journal: “Baby, you say, baby, this is part of my novel.” The story is a snappy, second-person whirlwind and Díaz at his best.
The only story in the book narrated by a woman. It stands out, but balances out the machismo in a way that assembles a more cohesive arc for the book as a whole. We assume she is Yunior’s father’s mistress when he moves to the United States without his family. The story is alive with loneliness and longing.
A nickname for a girl who was “whitetrash” that showed in her “no-fashion-sense.” Flaca is patient, but Yunior never “claims her” and their love affair is never serious. It is enjoyable to read for its exploration of Yunior’s open and sometimes cruel indifference, but not the strongest story in the collection.
The Pura Principal
When Yunior is 17, his brother Rafa is dying, and this story recalls a girl Rafa marries in a fit of denial about his mortality. Young Yunior is always a little more sympathetic as a teenager, dealing with the complex realities of his family of origin.
A claustrophobic, taut narrative about Rafa and Yunior as children when they move to New Jersey in the winter, and their father insists they stay indoors, slowly going crazy alongside their mother.
In 1985, Yunior is 16, and a girl finally wants to have sex with him, only this girl is not his girlfriend, who refuses his advances, but a woman, his neighbour and a teacher. She’s single, without children. A hot, conflicted affair ensues, and sets Yunior on the path to the many girls he eventually loses.
The Cheater’s Guide To Love
If the second person could be
sustained for an entire novel – and yes, of course I’ve read
Bright Lights, Big City –I would want to read The Cheater’s Guide to Love as an entire novel. It’s written in list form, each section spans a year after Yunior’s fiancée dumps him for cheating. At the end, Yunior finally starts to come clean to himself about his “lying cheating heart.” A painful, hilarious read and the best thing in the book.
Zoe Whittall mostly writes novels, but a recent short story appeared in Maisonneuve magazine.