TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Writer Junot Diaz has won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and, as of this week, the MacArthur Genius Award. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, who had mixed reactions to Diaz's novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," takes a look at his new short story collection, which is called "This is How You Lose Her."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Ay-yi-yi. What is it with these Dominican men? Their hands and eyes never stop roving, even as they're slipping engagement rings on their true loves' fingers. If that sounds like negative stereotyping, don't complain to me. I'm just passing along the collective cultural verdict of the women and men - most them themselves Dominican - who hustle through Junot Diaz's latest short story collection, "This is How You Lose Her." A good man is hard to find in these stories and, when you do, he's always in bed with someone else.
I picked up Diaz's collection because I wanted to give him another try. I was one of those rare readers who did not think Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," was all that wondrous. I got weary of it early on. Sure, the Spanglish freestyle narration was dazzling, but the title character, Oscar, was one of those boy-men who obsessively dwell in the hermetically sealed world of sci-fi comic books, "Dr. Who" reruns and sword and sorcerer fantasy fiction.
Oscar, I'm happy to say, is nowhere in this terrific collection, which instead focuses almost exclusively on Yunior, Oscar's wired friend who narrated "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." The nine fully charged up and chronologically mixed up stories here, mostly explore Yunior's staggeringly scummy treatment of his girlfriends, his hood hotties; but they also riff on other kinds of love, maternal and brotherly, the yearning immigrants feel for their home country, the distinct emotional purgatories of the cheater and the cheated upon.
(Reading) I'm not a bad guy. I'm like everybody else, weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees, though. She considers me a typical Dominican man. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of '80s free-style 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.
Like I said, that introduction is edited because, as any Junot Diaz reader knows, his characters can't rattle on for long without resorting to some expletive. Happily, Yunior's voice is as versatile as his other main instrument. Rather than just a Johnny One-Note of obscenities, he's also witty, and moving and mournful.
In the story "Invierno," Yunior recalls leaving Santo Domingo as a child after his father, who's been working in New Jersey for five years, finally sends for the family. It's the dead of winter and Yunior's Papi turns out to be as cold as the sleet outside. He's a bully with watery turtle eyes, who, because he's ashamed of Yunior's bad Afro-Caribbean hair, takes him to a barber one day to have it all shaved off.
When the newly bald Yunior returns to the family's apartment, his brother Rafa laughs and tells him, you look like a big thumb. It's a nasty moment leavened with our knowledge, gleaned from earlier stories here that Rafa is destined for a tragic end.
As electric as the stories are that make up Yunior's fragmented autobiography, the standout that stays with me is about another kind of character entirely. It's called Otravida, Otravez and it's told from the perspective of a Dominican woman named Yasmin who runs a hospital laundry. I sort through piles of sheets with gloved hands, she tells us. I never see the sick. They visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and dying.
Yasmin lives in a cockroachy rental house with other immigrants and she's sleeping with a married man whose wife is back in Santo Domingo. The promise of America in this sharply etched story comes down to a minimum wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in the mall, a guilty grappling in bed. I want to hear so much more from Yasmin. Yunior, our Dominican Don Juan, loses plenty of women in these stories, but Yasmin is one woman Diaz, as a writer, shouldn't let go.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Junot Diaz's new short story collection, "This is How You Lose Her." You can read an excerpt on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.
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