This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz – review

Sarah Hall on Junot Díaz's sparkling stories of love and infidelity

In "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars", the first story in a new collection by Junot Díaz, the author's serial narrator, Yunior, a young Dominican-American, cheats on his girlfriend Magdalena. She finds out, via a helpfully detailed letter – "shit you wouldn't even tell your boys drunk" – sent to her by the other woman. Magda calls him "a typical Dominican man, a sucio, an asshole". Why didn't he just deny it, his friends ask. The relationship totters along. Yunior contorts himself into positions of penitence, but Magdalena withdraws. The couple go on holiday to the Dominican Republic, abandoning Yunior's relatives in the dusty countryside for an exclusive coastal resort, where everything finally breaks down. But Yunior can't recognise the end of the relationship, nor his culpability. There were "causalities", he claims. "I'm like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes …"

The story acts as a primer for the collection. Infidelity, cultural typing, family and emigrant dynamics recur and reconfigure throughout. Though not set in strict chronological order, the stories span Yunior's life from childhood through to middle age. He learns his trade in womanising young, from his father, who takes him along on his "pussy runs", and his older brother, Rafa, a handsome tearaway who will die prematurely of cancer after sleeping with half the New Jersey female population. Yunior, bookish, bright, but prone to dope-smoking and apocalyptic nightmares, has regular girlfriends, some of whom he's smitten by – the chic-geeks, "alternatinas", and Latinas. Other paramours are less suitable: his brother's care-home plaything, his teacher, married women. To none of them is he faithful; he appears constitutionally incapable.

Díaz is master of the coruscating hip demotic. Yunior's narrative style is a mixture of identities and languages, Spanish slang, English slang, sci-fi, highbrow, street, Ameri-vario-cana. He's also extremely funny and, though frequently pitiful, is not self-pitying, even in midlife when he instigates the most catastrophic of his heartbreaks. Prior to this there's a wry gallows charm to his promiscuous ineptitude. In "Alma" his own diary busts him to his college girlfriend: result as follows.

You dance across the lawn, powered by the last fumes of your outrageous sinvergüenzería. Hey, muñeca, you say, prevaricating to the end. When she starts shrieking, you ask her, Darling, what ever is the matter? She calls you:
a cocksucker
a punk motherfucker
a fake-ass Dominican.
She claims:
You have a little penis
no penis
and worst of all that you like curried pussy.

(Which really is unfair, you try to say, since Laxmi is from Guyana, but Alma ain't listening.)

Each story dances with infidelity, each is kinetic, virile, and moves perfectly; each majestically exposes desire and inconstancy, less a moral waltz, more venereal merengue. Yunior's macho perspectives power all but one story - the beautiful and more formal "Otravida, Otravez", which is narrated by Yasmin, a hospital laundry worker. She is conducting an affair with a married man. His wife in the DR sends pleading letters – "How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering" – which Yasmin intercepts and reads compulsively. She's the perfect hauntee, a woman who suspects that at any moment she too might be replaced. A quarter of the way into the book, the intuitive, considerate tone leavens the heavy testosterone of the proceedings.

The most affecting narratives are those told in the second person – a potentially overpowering device in the hands of a lesser writer. The final story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love", is a masterpiece of skill and sensitivity, which makes full use of this mode's fascinating inside-out quality. The ruin of Yunior's best relationship and his lack of recovery are catalogued over six years. He cannot move on. "And then one June night you scribble the ex's name and: the half-life of love is forever." This is a soul's voice, a viewpoint that clarifies Yunior's interiority, provides emotional honesty in the face of his deceits. The stakes are much higher in this tale. Affairs have disastrous consequences, male characters contend with pregnancies; "that smelly bone … better off buried in the backyard of life" is unearthed in all its dirty glory. Díaz performs an astounding feat of literary sympathy. For 200 pages Yunior has been the perpetrator of unforgivable crimes, but in the end his sorrow and sorrowfulness become ours.

There's never full explanation of the infidelities, though those betrayed ask: why? Yunior cites factors – not getting enough sex, not getting great sex, getting great sex but wanting it elsewhere too. Excuses are rendered senseless under the devastation wrought not only upon the women in his life, but self-sabotagingly upon Yunior himself. The collection isn't a therapeutic, psychoanalytic traverse through habitual sexual indiscretion – there are no veiled diagnoses or counselling sessions, just amateur wisdoms provided by Yunior's friends. Nor is the propulsive cultural/biological "Ass-Engine" scrupulously examined, and it's better, realer, harder fiction for it. Instead, the reader is presented with a string of romantic fuck-ups and fallouts, in which the protagonist eventually learns, if not how not to cheat, then how to empathise with and humanise women. In so doing he painfully metabolises grief, acknowledges his "lying cheater's heart", and begins to understand, by its disqualification, what love means.

• Sarah Hall's The Beautiful Indifference is published by Faber.


Sarah Hall

The GuardianTramp

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