Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Cheater's Guide To Love

This, lightly edited, appeared in today's DNA.


For Hemingway, it was a taciturn form of grace under pressure; for Roth, it was an unbuttoned rant against stricture and tradition. Over the years, masculinity has been variously represented in American letters: of late it’s been marked by flights from traditional roles and ambivalence, a recent example being the conflicted narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

Displacement and changing notions of what it means to be a man are also very much a part of Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. These nine stories revolve around Yunior – earlier encountered in the author’s Drown – and are a record of his hopeless romantic entanglements as well as his family’s adjustment to life as Dominican immigrants in the United States.

Most of the collection concerns itself with the cocky Yunior’s inability to stay in a steady relationship because of his roving eye. “I’m not a bad guy,” he says in his defence: “I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good”. To this, a former girlfriend counters that he’s a typical Dominican man: “a sucio, an asshole”. Other stories tell of the unsuitable alliances of Yunior’s swaggering and self-destructive elder brother, as well as recollections of their father – who, Yunior says, bequeathed to him the gene of infidelity.

In a shift of tone but not of theme, one of the stories is from a woman’s point of view, recording the immigrant dreams and hardships of a hospital worker and her relationship with another arrival from Dominica whose wife has remained behind. Moving and without flashy effects, it ably expands the collection’s reach.

Yunior’s alliances and break-ups with the women in his life are occasionally recorded in a wistful manner that can bring to mind the character played by Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. The prose, though, has an infectious and rhythmic insouciance and is liberally sprinkled with Dominican words and phrases, as was the case with Diaz’s earlier books. Every once in a while one comes across a sentence that re-affirms his gifts as a writer -- take, for example, the effortless sweep of this one, when Yunior recalls his mother’s behaviour on the evenings that his father invites co-workers over: “She started out each night natural and unreserved, with a face that scowled as easily as it grinned, but as the men loosened their belts and aired out their toes and talked their talk, she withdrew; her expressions narrowed until all that remained was a tight, guarded smile that seemed to drift across the room the way a shadow drifts slowly across a wall”.

The final story, ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, is narrated appropriately enough in the second person, and tells of Yunior’s comeuppance. He spends years obsessing over a former, failed relationship as he comes to realize the price he has to pay for his way of life. (As Hank Williams could have told him: “The time will come when you’ll be blue/Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you”.) Finally, self-recrimination leads to self-realisation and, in an act that feels “like hope, like grace”, Yunior finds redemption in writing about his earlier affairs. ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, then, could well have been the title of this impressive collection by an evidently talented author.

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