‘Wondrous Life’ author’s new book retains talent

Michiko Kakutani / New York Times News Service /

“This Is How You Lose Her” By Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books, 213 pgs., $26.95)

As his extraordinary 2007 novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” so exuberantly demonstrated, Junot Diaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey.

“Brief Wondrous Life” is one of those amazingly inclusive books that seems to embrace everything the author knows, while his new collection of short stories, “This Is How You Lose Her,” is a miniaturist performance — a modest, musically structured riff that works variations on one main subject: a young Dominican man’s womanizing and its emotional fallout.

This character, Yunior, appears to be the same Yunior who narrated “Brief Wondrous Life” and who stars in “Drown,” Diaz’s critically acclaimed 1996 debut collection of stories. “This Is How You Lose Her” is, in many respects, a kind of bookend to “Drown,” with more strobe-lighted glimpses of Yunior’s life as he tries to juggle girlfriends, pursue a literary career and come to terms with his father, who was absent for much of his childhood. Some of the stories are told in the first person, others in the rather awkward second person.

The strongest tales are those fueled by the verbal energy and magpie language that made “Brief Wondrous Life” so memorable and that capture Yunior’s efforts to commute between two cultures, Dominican and American, while always remaining an outsider. Diaz evocatively describes Yunior’s affection for Santo Domingo: how he loves “the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway,” loves “the redhead woman on her way to meet the daughter she hasn’t seen in 11 years,” holding gifts on her lap “like the bones of a saint.”

“This Is How You Lose Her” doesn’t aspire to be a grand anatomy of love like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” — which opens out into a luminous meditation on the varieties of love and loss and the persistence of passion — but it gives us a small, revealing window on the subject.

Asked by a friend if she loves her married boyfriend, one of Diaz’s characters gives this answer: “I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.”