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book review

‘This Is How You Lose Her’ by Junot Diaz

What does it mean to be a sucio? In his third book, “This Is How You Lose Her,” Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz endeavors to define the costs and limits of the lifestyle implicit in this Dominican slang for a player. Five of its nine stories concern smart, devoted women who fall in love with sucios who cheat on them with startling vim and alacrity. One finds its protagonist on the precipice of becoming a sucio. One chronicles the attempts of a cancer-ridden sucio to transcend death by stepping out on his girlfriends. The epic story for which the collection is named follows a sucio who, despite his ardor for the girlfriend who threatens him with a machete if ever he should stray, betrays her at least 50 times. One despairs for heterosexuality

Most of these tales involve Yunior and Rafa, the narrator and his malevolent older brother first introduced in Diaz’s debut collection, “Drown” and returned to in his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” These books likewise introduced Diaz’s exuberant style, as well as his menagerie of working-class Dominican-American characters, adrift after their expulsion from an ancestral home that is simultaneously edenic and frightening.

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The women, meanwhile, are furious and humiliated. They are caliginous figures, flitting though the stories as Yunior’s limited attention span allows, reduced to an ethnicity, an attractive posterior, a vindictive act. Girlfriends fare only slightly better. They are tricked into commitment, then dissed, and cheated on. They are often admired but never understood. They are the measure of a man, of his virility, his station. This even holds true for the narrator of “Otravida, Otravez” — the only story Diaz turns over to a female voice — whose boyfriend’s commitment is granted at the expense of a family in the Dominican Republic and bound up with aspirations for his new home.

While the tone of “Drown” was deeply sad and “Oscar Wao” both sad and funny, “This Is How You Lose Her” adds a new texture to the Diaz microverse: bitterness. If this account is to be trusted, hooking up with a stadium’s worth of lovely ladies isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Told, however, in Diaz’s magisterial voice, the trials and tribulations of sex-obsessed objectifiers become a revelation.

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His bottomless self-awareness doesn’t hurt. When, for instance, Yunior cheats on the machete woman, he gives her a litany of lines that stretches on for pages and thoroughly dispatches any and all possible motivations and suspicions Ms. Machete or the reader may harbor about philanderers, Dominican-American men, and Dominican-American philandering men. (“You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. . .”

Swears, too. Diaz cusses better than anyone writing in English. Though “Oscar Wao” was full of them, none were deployed with the same force as those in “This Is How You Lose Her.” Although equally profuse, they serve a newfound range of purpose, from gestures of irreverence to linguistic cudgels, sometimes at the same time. Their cumulative effect can make even someone who has worked in a newsroom or loading dock understand how emotionally charged these words can be.

These stories find Diaz up to his old tricks, mixing GRE-prep words with literary allusions, pop-culture references, Dominican slang, and American profanity, occasionally within the same sentence. In “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” the collection’s opening salvo, Diaz employs this strategy in an obvious and grating manner — within the first seven pages, he references Andrew Carnegie, “Bartelby, the Scrivener,” and “Star Trek,” swears at least 16 times, and uses the phrase “doo-doo.” (Does anyone talk like this? Does it matter?)

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Such instances remind of the challenges Diaz faces in his role as perhaps the sole literary docent to the lives of recent Dominican immigrants. At such times, he appears torn between remaining true to the experiences and voices of his characters while straining to communicate just how clever and bold he can be to readers of literary fiction.

Thankfully, Diaz puts the brakes on his linguistic backflips by the second half of the first story and largely keeps himself in check for the remainder of the book. The result is some of his best writing. “The Pura Principle,” a desperately sad and complicated meditation on dying young, and “This Is How You Lose Her,” a story too awe-inspiring to be ruined by the appalling cheesiness of the last six sentences, best display Diaz’s newfound emotional and stylistic range. At times, “Oscar Wao” suffered from an overabundance of resolution. Now Diaz has finally mastered ambivalence, and he is a better — the best — writer for it.


Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.

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