“I’m not a bad guy,” begins the first story of Junot Diaz’s new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. A few lines later, the narrator, Yunior, fills in the details:
See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out about it because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
For longtime readers of Junot Diaz, this opening riff will sound promisingly familiar. First there is Yunior himself, who figured in many of the stories in Diaz’s debut collection, Drown, and narrated some of the more hilarious sections of Diaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won a Pulitzer and transformed Diaz from a MFA-world fave into a bestselling author. Then there is the story’s subject, the “typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole” in love and in trouble, cheating on the girl of his dreams and spending the rest of the story trying without success to win her back.
Most of all, though, there is that distinctive Diaz voice, somehow both conversational and profoundly literary. No review of Diaz’s books fails to mention his narrative voice, the way it combines Spanglish street slang with sci-fi nerd talk and, in his later work, a frosting of academic jargon. That’s all there, in spades, in This Is How You Lose Her. In one of the later stories, “Miss Lora,” in which teenage Yunior falls into a Mrs. Robinson-type affair with an older woman in his housing project, Diaz moves in the space of a few short pages from untranslated Spanish dialogue, to a comprehensive list of 1980s nuclear holocaust films, to an offhand reference to the “atavistic impulse to die alone, out of sight.” And this is the same story in which Yunior describes Miss Lora, a skinny, muscular ex-gymnast, with the line: “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub.”
But amid the verbal pyrotechnics, Diaz’s niftiest literary trick is hiding in plain sight: his deft and surprisingly widespread use of the second person. With another kind of writer the fact that three of the nine stories in the collection are narrated in the second person, and a fourth is directed to an unnamed “you,” would be viewed as a stylistic coup, a la Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Here, it passes almost without notice. But just because Diaz does such a good job of masking this narrative tactic behind a barrage of jokes and Spanglish bombast doesn’t mean he doesn’t use it to devastating effect, or that it doesn’t shine a light on how Diaz manages to dance so precariously along the color line that, four years after the election of a black president, still pervades American life.
Take that opening paragraph from the collection’s first story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”: “You know how it is,” Yunior says of his decision not to tell his girlfriend about his cheating. “A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life.” Already, just a few lines into the story, you – whoever you are, white, black, brown, American, Dominican, German, Aussie – are complicit in Yunior’s crime. You know how it is. Even better is the line about the incriminating details in the girlfriend’s letter: “Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.” It happens so quickly and so effortlessly that you don’t realize that in eight words Diaz has supplied you not only with a scarlet letter’s worth of sexual indiscretions, but a girlfriend, a girl on the side, and a group of “boys” to listen while you brag about it. You, my friend, are a player, a Latin chick-magnet, a sucio, and all you did was open a book and start reading.
This is one of Diaz’s greatest gifts, the intimacy of his voice, the way he invites you over to his place to smoke a few bowls and talk about girls, the way, in story after story, he lets you in on the fun. From the story, “Nilda”: “She was Dominican, from here, and had super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe – I’m talking world-class.” Or from “Alma,” who, it transpires, “has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.” The scene is so vivid, so real: four or five guys sitting around an apartment, beer bottles and pizza slices everywhere, the blare of the TV drowning out the traffic outside, you pull up a seat, somebody passes you the pipe – and, boom, Yunior starts in on one of his stories.
But there is a subtle divide in these stories, and in the way Diaz employs that narrative “you,” that only becomes clear when you step back from the book for a day or two. Five of the nine stories in This Is How You Lose Her date from the late 1990s and more or less comprise outtakes from Drown. The other four stories are more recent, three of the four having appeared in the New Yorker in the last two years. While many stylistic tics and thematic concerns link the two batches of stories, something strange and sad has become of the “you” in Yunior during the intervening years. In the early stories, Yunior talks about “you” all the time, occasionally referring to himself, but more often as an appeal to his listener, the “you” reading the story who is invited to share his pain and his joy. In the later stories, though, “you” isn’t an occasional visitor; more often than not, the entire story is written in the second person, as if “you” isn’t Yunior at all, but someone else – a younger, uglier, more dangerous Yunior he is trying to rid himself of by calling out in public.
This is especially true of the last two stories, “Miss Lora” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which are both narrated in the second person. In “Miss Lora,” which like many of the stories here, has the dream-like formlessness of recovered memory, Yunior seems to be speaking to quite literally to a younger version of himself, warning that younger “you” away from his secret love affair with a lonely older neighbor the way the audience shouts at the hero of a horror movie, “No! No! Don’t open that door!”
In “Cheater’s Guide,” Yunior, like his creator and alter ego, has moved to Boston to take a teaching job a prestigious university – Diaz is a professor at M.I.T ; Yunior appears to be teaching at Harvard. But success hasn’t made him any less of a horndog, and at first “Cheater’s Guide” seems like a return to form, yet another raunchy, self-deprecating Yunior story that begins, as all Yunior stories must, with the line: “Your girl catches you cheating.” But as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that nerdy young chatterbox Yunior has grown older and sadder, saddled with the mental and physical afflictions of middle age. He is still obsessed with his body, but when he takes up jogging, he tears a ligament in his foot, and then, when he joins a yoga studio (“Mad fucking ho’s in there,” his best friend Elvis tells him. “I’m talking ho’s by the ton.”), he ends up rupturing a disc. Yunior is alone and he is hurting, and for the first time he is losing his cool.
I found “Cheater’s Guide” one of the most emotionally bleak stories Diaz has written, and also one of his most honest. Diaz has certainly never shrunk from dealing openly with race, but in all three books, no matter what racial madness was happening on the page, I as a white reader always felt included among his boys, the “you” in his stories always seemed to include me. In “Cheater’s Guide,” it didn’t. Yunior is openly angry, and while most of his ire is directed at the women in his life and his failing body, white people are starting to piss him off, too. He’s a tenured professor and yet he can’t cross Harvard Yard without some security guard asking for his ID. White kids throw soda cans at his head, and it seems like every time he stops at an intersection some crazy white person starts screaming at him and giving him the finger. “You take it all very personally,” Yunior writes, most definitely not including whiteboy me. “I hope someone drops a fucking bomb on this city, you rant.”
No, Yunior is not a bad guy, but he is growing up, and as Diaz is honest enough to admit in this collection, getting older isn’t necessarily all mellowing out and seeing the error in your youthful ways. Sometimes, it seems, you can spend your whole life clowning, turning all that rage into jokes designed to make the very people who anger you most laugh the hardest, and then one day that stops working. You’ve done it – you’re a success, a big-deal professor read by millions, and still you’re pissed off.
And then what? I don’t know. But I plan to tune in for Yunior’s next appearance to find out.