Fiction: This is how you lose her

This is how you lose her
Junot Diaz
faber and faber


In 1996 Junot Diaz released his first book of fiction, the linked short story collection, Drown. I had not heard of him or the book, and bought it on impulse, seduced by the cover – black and white photograph of a teenage boy, porkpie hat resting on his head, standing in the door of a heavily tagged train. The image reeked of urban grit and attitude. I took it home with the greatest of expectations.

I was not let down. While several of the stories are set in a hard neighbourhood in a New Jersey city, and are told in a patois mash of the North American street and the old country vernacular of the immigrant, the early stories in the book, set in the Dominican Republic, are remarkable, combining heartbreaking tenderness with the realities of violence.

I carried Drown around with me, re-reading it many times. It forms my Holy Trinity of short story collections, along with Richard Ford’s Rock Springs (1979) and The Complete Stories (1946) by Flannery O’Connor. These stories never lose their hold on many, and reveal a little more of themselves with each reading. This is the measure of a great and lasting short story.

In 2008, Diaz took home the chocolates when his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Oscar, the young protagonist of the novel has the tough task of surviving life as a ‘ghetto nerd’, living with his family in a New Jersey Dominican neighbourhood. He does not possess the street-smarts of Yunior, the narrator of Drown, but he does convey the innocence and imagination that Yunior can barely afford to display, lets he be cast out as weak.

With the release of This is how you lose her, Yunior is back. He is a little older, and seemingly none the wiser. In keeping with a strong theme in the later stories in Drown, he deals with relationship struggles on a grand scale. He is both a philandering cheat, and obsessively jealous, should another man (probably a cheating boyfriend also) cast a wayward eye on his woman.

In the hands of a lesser writer, we might easily tire of Yunior, relegating him to the same sin-bin where unreconstructed misogynist rappers hang out. (You might find Tony Abbott ‘getting down’ there.) Yunior remains fascinating and multi-dimensional. What we evidence through his narration is the degree to which the sins-of-the-father are visited on the son. (His own father had left the family behind for North America in Drown.)

Both collections provide a growing insight that those with true attitude – and courage – in the world of this immigrant community are the women, often abandoned and struggling to feed and shelter their kids, and keep them out of trouble.

As with the earlier collection, This is how you lose her delivers a manifesto story – ‘The Cheater’s Guide To Love’. (In Drown the story was ‘How To Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie’.) For those serious ‘root-rats’ amongst you – both boys and girls, naturally – ‘The Cheater’s Guide …’ provides a cautionary tale. It is a story that may affront, amuse and leave particular readers feeling a little anxious in equal measure.

When tenderness does appear in the new collection, it comes at a cost, exemplified in the story ‘The Pura Principle’. In the first sentences Yunior casually informs us that his older brother, Rafa, is dying: ‘we didn’t know what the fuck to do, what the fuck to say. So we just said nothing.’ The story reveals that the brutality of life for this family will not let up because someone is dying, and that emotional depth cannot be defined in sentimental cliches or cheap self-redemption.

I love Diaz’s writing because he doesn’t blink. He could have gone the easier road with this new collection. We might have come to ‘admire’ an uplifted Yunior. Fortunately our relationship with him remains complex. At times he annoys and infuriates us. And yet we are also seduced by his street corner charm and wisdom. In the end Yunior is Yunior, the same kid, out of the DR into NJ, living on his wits and trying to survive.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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