In Mexican lucha libre, three figures loom large above the rest: El Santo, symbol of justice for all; Blue Demon, with one of the most infamous heel-to-face turns in professional wrestling; and Mil Máscaras, or “Thousand Masks,” known for a never-ending array of wardrobe combinations. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz has joked that his frequent narrator Yunior would see Mil Máscaras as a totem, “representing how many sides we have to us.”
Nearly every story in Drown, Junot Díaz’s first short-story collection, features Yunior de Las Casas as the narrator or central character. About halfway through Díaz’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Yunior is revealed as the narrator once more. And again, he’s the constant narrator of This Is How You Lose Her, Díaz’s second story collection, 16 years in the making.
Returning to the same well this many times is risky, but that was the case for other storytellers as well. John Updike had Harry Angstrom, John Fante had Arturo Bandini, and Díaz has Yunior. Díaz’s first two books emerged with an almost effortless mastery; every word in This Is How You Lose Her feels like it was earned with blood, sweat, and tears—and yet it still admirably measures up to Díaz’s previous work.
In Drown, Yunior and his brother Rafa were young children, running around the campo, watching their parents dance during the good times in New Jersey, but this collection takes the logical next step in their story. Though the stories stretch from the first winter Yunior spends in New Jersey (“Invierno”) through adulthood (“The Cheater’s Guide To Love”), most of them have Yunior struggling with intimacy, love, and fidelity. He’s no longer processing the shift from the Dominican Republic to America. In this collection, he grows from merely wanting to “fix the relationship” after countless infidelities to understanding real compassion and feeling the full weight of his transgressions against women.
“The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”—first published in 1998, shortly after Drown—has Yunior attempting to heal a relationship while on vacation with a girlfriend around the Dominican Republic. “The Cheater’s Guide To Love” echoes “How To Date A Browngirl…” from Drown: Both are written in second-person perspective, which Díaz employs with even more frequency in How You Lose Her. Other stories depict Yunior’s teenage crushes, his extended affair with a middle-aged neighbor, his brother’s bitter downward spiral after a cancer diagnosis, and the archetypal “one who got away.”
“Otravida, Otravez”—another story originally published more than a decade ago—is on the surface the one story without Yunior, but it actually further reveals the larger metafictional construct Díaz has worked on since Drown: the stories without Yunior’s narration can function as stories he wrote. The novella “Negocios” from Drown is an imagination of Yunior’s father finding work in America and bringing over his family from the Dominican Republic; an attempt for Yunior the writer to connect and empathize with his absent father. “Otravida, Otravez” imagines the other woman Yunior’s father left his family for, sculpting a fully realized character out of what would otherwise be a scapegoat villain. It’s difficult to parse out those details from the actual text, since just about the only clue is the name of Ramon’s wife, Virta—Yunior’s mother—but the attention to such minute accuracy within a larger patchwork signals that Díaz’s arduous effort pays off.
Drown is the bigger collection in many ways, though nothing in either collection matches the expansive picaresque of Oscar Wao, which traverses the Trujillo dictatorship while paralleling The Fantastic Four. While Díaz’s first book is still heavily focused on Yunior and his perspective, it’s split between the Dominican Republic and the New York area, examining immigration, fractured families, distant fathers, and hard labor. This Is How You Lose Her is far more personal, plumbing the depths of Yunior’s character as he grows into an adult seemingly incapable of having a healthy relationship.
Yunior, as many have noted, bears a striking resemblance to Díaz. Yunior was born in the Dominican Republic, moved to New Jersey to reunite with his father, lived near an enormous landfill, attended Rutgers, had a brother diagnosed with cancer, and became a writer and professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These facts are all also true of Díaz the author. In fact, his nickname within his own family is Yunior. The autobiographical parallels between Díaz and Yunior are akin to François Truffaut’s with Antoine Doinel: so sweeping that it’s impossible to separate author from character.
Díaz is already at work on his second novel—tentatively titled Monstro, and excerpted in this summer’s science-fiction issue of The New Yorker—which, unlike his work to this point, is an apocalyptic disease-outbreak tale. But at the center of the excerpt is a nameless lovesick college kid who aspires to be a writer and speaks with a colloquial slang that is unmistakably Díaz’s. Even if that narrator isn’t Yunior, he has strands of Yunior’s DNA.
In light of the Fantastic Four parallels in Oscar Wao, Yunior corresponds to Uatu The Watcher, the constant observer responsible for Earth and its inhabitants. With such a heavy weight of autobiographical content, and that thin veil of comic book allegory, Yunior becomes not only a figure of observation, but representative of the way Díaz views himself. And though Uatu is meant to maintain a strict code of non-interference, he breaks that code to interact with humanity countless times—omniscient but flawed, unable to resist giving into temptation, just like Díaz and his literary alter ego.