“I’m not a bad guy,” is the first thing Yunior, Junot Diaz’s favorite protagonist, tells us about himself in Diaz’s latest book, “This is How You Lose Her” (Riverhead). The statement is precisely the sort of dissembling lie a disreputable man would tell. Is it the truth or merely a hope to which the increasingly desperate Yunior clings?
Diaz, who has lived with Yunior and his idiosyncrasies for so long – three books and many headaches and heartaches now – agrees that the answer is complicated.
“He’s so difficult,” Diaz says. “He’s just so difficult! There’s something knotted about him. But he’s human in his vulnerability; he’s human in his awfulness. He’s human in his struggle for something better than his life, even in his stubborn unwillingness to head in the direction of his better self.”
Diaz first introduced Yunior in his acclaimed short story collection “Drown.” Eleven years later, Yunior reappeared to narrate the magnetic novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which blended savage Dominican history with geek culture, earned Diaz a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It almost certainly contributed to Diaz’s receiving of a MacArthur “genius” grant.
Now Yunior has returned in a second collection of linked stories about love and loss. (The book was nominated for a National Book Award; the winner wasn’t announed at presstime.) In them Yunior, whose family has emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey, faces his father’s abandonment, his older brother’s death from cancer, his own thoughtless betrayal of women and fear for the future.
What is it about this guy that draws Diaz back to him?
“I knew immediately after “Drown” I wanted to write this crazy story about a Dominican cheater,” Diaz says, adding that he started the new book immediately on the heels of “Drown.” In the meantime, “Oscar Wao” intervened. “It took years for each story to come together. It was kind of a wild thing. I wasn’t expecting it to take this long, honestly.”
Yunior is a cheater; in the book’s opening story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” he’s scrambling to keep his girlfriend from leaving him after she learns of his infidelity (“I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a f–––letter.”) He’s crushed when Magda leaves him, yet continues to pursue his sucias .
Diaz has taken some heat from critics for what they perceive as misogyny in the stories, but Miami author Edwidge Danticat says Yunior’s confessions have the ring of truth.
“I think if you grow up in a certain environment in the DR or in immigrant New York or poor in New Jersey, you recognize these characters,” she says.