Few contemporary writers have been anointed with as much praise as Junot Díaz. Since 1996, when he first burst onto the literary scene and was immediately exalted as a promising upstart with a distinctive voice, Mr. Díaz has been the darling of the literary mainstream, a recognition that has earned him induction into the pages of The New Yorker and into the Pulitzer Prize board from which he received his very own trophy in 2008. Over the last few weeks, book reviewers — from Leah Hager Cohen at the New York Times Book Review to Hector Tobar at The Los Angeles Times to Laura Bennett at The New Republic — have carried on the trend; upon the release of Mr. Díaz’s new short story collection, “This Is How You Lose Her,” his third book after publishing “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (2007) and “Drown” (1996), they have showered on him yet again a goodly amount of laurels. But neither the plaudits nor the legitimacy critical reception confers on a writer adequately account for why legions of loyal readers pore over Mr. Díaz’s books.
Mr. Díaz’s popularity alone would seldom rouse more than a few eyelash quivers of attention if it were not for how adept he is at melding seemingly cacophonous idioms and themes — the argot of academia with the streetwise vernacular of hip-hop, the banter of Spanglish shot through with rotten Dominican slang, the erudition of nerd-speak with the restrained effusions of a bona fide playa; love with an imperious masculinity forged in colonialism and dictatorship — into resonantly calibrated beats. In a recent interview in Boston Review titled “The Search for Decolonial Love,” Mr. Díaz explains his writing process as not “faithful representations” that “run the risk of being mere titillation or sensationalism” and instead “show how…oppressive paradigms work together with the social reality of the characters to undermine the very dreams the characters have for themselves.” “Now if the redounding is too blunt and obvious, then what you get is a moralistic parable and not literature. But, if it’s done well, then you get both the ugliness that comes out of showing how people really are around issues like race and gender.” Indeed, Mr. Díaz reveals in his fictions “how people really are around issues of race and gender” without bloviating like a pedant, like some kind of “budget Foucault.”
Deployed by Yunior, Mr. Díaz’s ballsy alter-ego, this apt character detail, by way of name-drop, describes a scene in the new collection’s opening story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.” Yunior cheats on his girlfriend Magdalena. After she discovers his infidelity, he resolves to repair their relationship, at first through half-assessed overtures, then through travel. While at first she is loath to accept, he eventually convinces her, and the couple takes a trip down to the Dominican Republic. What a slight price to pay for his womanizing! But, alas, things don’t go as planned on their “All-Quisqueya Redemption Tour.” And they end up in Casa de Campo, “The Resort That Shame Forgot.” As a rebuffed Yunior observes the scene around him, he finds a “Eurofuck beached out on a towel” “in the company of a dark-assed Dominican girl” in one of the most lavish resorts in the DR, where the island’s elite “relax after a long month of oppressing the masses.” Despite the Afro-Dominican girl’s presence, who is probably a sex worker — “these two didn’t meet back in their Left Bank days” — “there’s a massive melanin deficit in evidence.” In his wisecracking polyglot voice, Yunior limns his racial and class-consciousness, his political disposition and postcolonial sensibility. However, Yunior understands on what shaky grounds his opposition to a finely implied neocolonialism rests. Instead of the native informant’s indignant moralism, he opts for a playful, ciceronian rhetorical shtick:
“If this was another kind of story, I’d tell you about the sea. What it looks like after it’s been forced into the sky through a blowhole. How when I’m driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver, I know I’m back for real.” He further defines Santo Domingo as populated by “albinos” and “tígueres;” the traffic as a “cosmology of battered cars” with an “equal number of repair shops, run by any fool with a wrench;” and the street he grew up on as “how it hasn’t decided yet if it wants to be a slum or not and how it’s been in this state of indecision for years.” Then he undercuts the authority of the reportage: “But that would make it another kind of story, and I’m having enough trouble with this one as it is. You’ll have to take my word for it. Santo Domingo is Santo Domingo. Let’s pretend we all know what goes on there.”
In addition to the complexities of Yunior’s idiom and the worldview it discloses in highly compressed and tantalizing prose, Mr. Díaz also treats political themes. As the book’s title suggests, all the stories in This Is How You Lose Her center on relationships, on the scarred bodies and souls of men and women seeking in one another the balm of intimacy. These scars are both material and psychic. In “Nilda,” Yunior describes his brother’s ex-girlfriend as having “big stupid lips and a sad moonface and the driest skin. Always rubbing lotion on it and cursing the Moreno father who’d given it to her.” The Nilda Yunior remembers from when they were younger “let her hair wall away her face” and dealt with her alienation and self-loathing by reading “The New Mutants.” But as soon as Nilda begins dating older guys including Rafa, her “slash of black hair had gone from something to pull on the bus to something to stroke in the dark.” Thus Nilda’s validation can only be possible through the fraught intimacy of sex. The psychic scars of such objectification contrasts with the “scars snaking up” the “arms” of four hobos at the mini mall where Yunior sees Nilda for the last time. Throughout the stories, scars and the body have a prominent place ranging from “I see a spiderweb of scars across her stomach” to “bitten-up hands” to “stenosis.”
In “Otravida, Otravez,” Yasmin says about a married man with whom she is having an affair: “I lift his meaty hand. It is heavy and has flour under each nail. Sometimes at night I kiss his knuckles, crinkled as prunes.” In an especially poignant scene, at the hospital laundry room where Yasmin works, the women “whisper” about the 80s AIDS epidemic, suspecting that “given the blood we see, that there’s a great war going on out in the world.” To which a new worker replies, “Just the one inside of the bodies.” Relegated to the laundry room of the hospital, Yasmin, and her co-workers, never encounters the sick; “they visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and dying,” she says.
The bravura of these imaginative exertions by turns tender and blunt explain the source of Mr. Díaz’s popularity, not only with an exclusive coterie of critical luminaries but also with a widespread audience that cuts across various reading communities. But how? Living, imagining and creating in a country, like the United States, where the reading public, in contrast to that in Latin America, Asia and Europe, could hardly care less about writers — not even to want to kill them (Salman Rushdie) or pillory their careers as national schadenfreude (Martin Amis), Mr. Díaz has done what few literary authors have; he has maintained a popular following and done so, strangely enough, by steeping his fictions in politics. Or perhaps, in less rarefied terms, homeboy has kept it real.
Junot Díaz will be reading from his new collection at Mount Holyoke College on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m.