This Is How You Lose Her
By Junot Díaz
Riverhead Books, 213 pages, $28.50
Love in its many forms is the subject of this inventive collection of linked short stories by U.S. Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz.
The narrator, a Dominican-American child, latterly adolescent, and finally young adult, named Yunior, plus his mother and brother, appear and re-appear in multiple scenarios.
You soon grow comfortable with, even attached to, them. It's a bit like tuning in to your favourite weekly television sitcom.
Díaz is a Dominican-American writer and professor of creative writing at MIT. He won the Pulitzer in 2008 for his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
His Dominican Republic roots are the fount of these stories.
They come with classic immigrant-story tension. Yunior is torn between heeding his racial legacy and carving out a new "American" destiny.
But most of these stories, as the title suggests, are also about love. Love -- found and lost, faithful and faithless, compassionate and carnal, trusting and twisted.
Be forewarned: Díaz employs a lot of graphic sexuality and sexual epithets in these stories, as adolescent Yunior figures out what love is against a tableau of macho Hispanicism colliding with mainstream (read: white) American culture.
His and his wanton brother's actions are sometimes outrageous -- cheating on girlfriends, smoking huge quantities of dope, drinking until falling down drunk -- but their personalities, somehow, remain quietly beguiling. The tone of Yunior's narration redeems their fecklessness and recklessness.
The narrator, and other characters, often slip into a Spanglish patois. But once you get attuned to the rhythm of their speech, it's easy to follow description and dialogue.
Yunior's mania for women and sex isn't just a mania for women and sex.
He uses women sexually. But he also uses his troubled relationships to discover trust, and what to believe.
It's as if each relationship -- the artistic Alma, the older Miss Lora, the unforgiving Magda -- is a crucible for forging his identity.
Often, just when he seems to be making progress in his explorations, he loses ground. Understanding who he's supposed to be in a mixed -- half gringo, half Dominican -- and mixed-up existence is his object.
Díaz's characters are fascinating, energetic and highly sexualized beings.
But the places and landscapes they inhabit are sometimes thinly drawn.
Locales can feel like stage-play props and settings. And because the background isn't sufficiently filled in, the characters' world isn't fully realized, and therefore they, too, particularly secondary characters, lack verisimilitude.
What landscape there is, is almost urban gothic landscape.
Flawed but tender or amusing characters occupy decaying houses and apartments. And events, both serious and funny, flow directly from poverty and racism.
Ultimately, these stories pull you along quite nicely. Irresistible characters have a way of doing that.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.