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Short stories of dazzle, wit, gravitas

In the words of the MacArthur Foundation, which recently awarded him a $500,000 "genius grant," Junot Diaz is "a fiction writer using vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle."

By Junot Diaz

Riverhead Books. 213 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Martha Woodall

In the words of the MacArthur Foundation, which recently awarded him a $500,000 "genius grant," Junot Diaz is "a fiction writer using vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle."

True enough. But those measured words fail to convey the dazzle, punch, sly wit, and subtle gravitas that this Dominican-born storyteller packs into his narratives. All are on glorious display in Diaz's new short-story collection, This Is How You Lose Her.

For readers unfamiliar with Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or those who have missed his short fiction in the New Yorker, this slim volume provides a wonderful introduction to Diaz's jazzy language punctuated by Spanish slang and idioms, his penetrating insight, and his descriptive powers. A surly young woman who works in a hospital laundry "has a mouth like unswept glass - when you least expect it she cuts you." For a woman returning on a plane to Santo Domingo to visit the daughter she hasn't seen in 11 years he observes: "The gifts she holds on her lap, like the bones of a saint."

The stories in this collection examine love in all its varied forms, including bonds between parents, siblings, and friends. But Diaz is especially adept at chronicling romances as they crash and burn and at poking through the embers in the smoldering aftermath.

Set mostly in northern New Jersey and in Boston, with occasional trips back to Santo Domingo, these tales are told in the first person. And since all but one are presented from the point of view of the improvident Yunior, readers are treated to the vivid tragicomedies triggered by this Dominican-born young man's tendency to indulge in sexual escapades on the side.

In "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," which opens the book, Diaz introduces his narrator: "I'm not a bad guy. I know how that sounds - defensive, unscrupulous - but it's true. I'm like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes but basically good. Magdalena disagrees, though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an a-."

Then he tackles the subject at hand. "All of Magda's friends say I cheated because I was Dominican, that all of us Dominican men are dogs and can't be trusted. I doubt that I can speak for all Dominican men but I doubt that they can either. From my perspective, it wasn't genetics; there were reasons. Causalities."

In this instance, the relationship founders after Magdalena receives a letter from the woman Yunior has been dallying with, and the missive is crammed with intimate details. But in most cases, it's his own incautious nature that trips Yunior up and causes his relationships to unravel. In "Alma," his girlfriend finds the journal where he has been documenting his trysts. And in the black-humor gem "The Cheater's Guide to Love," Yunior's failure to empty his e-mail trash bin leads his fiancee to discover six years of indiscretions that sets off a multiyear chain of calamity that verges on farce.

At the same time that Diaz is charting Yunior's misadventures with matters of the heart, he is artfully relating how his narrator, his older brother Rafa, the neighborhood heartthrob, and their mother - his domineering father is mostly absent - set down roots in a series of inhospitable immigrant apartment complexes in New Jersey, grow older, and are schooled in the ways of their new land. In Yunior's case, thanks to the surprising attentions of an older neighbor, that education includes college and graduate school and acquiring the ability to slip in the offhand literary allusion: "A lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, No. I'd rather not."

In "Invierno," Yunior recalls how he and Rafa spent their first days as youngsters in the United States in the grip of winter. Their father, who had been gone for five years, has sent for his family at last. The strict stranger introduces the boys to the secrets of indoor plumbing but forbids them to leave the apartment in their new parkas to experience snow. The restless boys divide their time between fighting and watching television. "Pretty early on, Mami decided that watching TV was beneficial; you could learn the language from it. She saw our young minds as bright, spiky sunflowers in need of light, and arranged us as close to the TV as possible to maximize our exposure . . . eight, nine hours of TV a day, but it was Sesame Street that gave us our best lessons."

In other stories, Yunior is in high school, their father is gone for good, his mother is working at a factory and trying to hold the household together and Rafa is battling cancer. With the irrepressible Yunior handling the play-by-play, even this grim scenario is leavened by moments of dark hilarity as Rafa tries to deal with his malady with unorthodox measures and their mother turns to religion.

"She'd never been big on church before, but as soon as we landed on cancer planet she went so over-the-top Jesu-cristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she'd had one handy," Yunior reports. And for support, his mother enlists the aid of a women's prayer group that descends on the apartment several times a day. Yunior privately calls them the Four Horsefaces of the Apocalypse, but his loss is palpable as Rafa's health continues its downward spiral.

In addition to stories about Yunior and his family, Diaz has slipped in "Otravida, Otravez," a haunting narrative that provides a woman's-eye view of the immigrant experience and contemplates the emotional cost of severed ties between spouses and their children. Yasmin, a young woman who has left the Dominican Republic by herself, works in a hospital laundry with other Latinas. "I sort through piles of sheets with gloved hands," she explains. "The dirties are brought down by orderlies, morenas mostly. 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."

Over time and against her better judgment, Yasmin takes up with Ramon, a hardworking, thrifty man who has left a wife behind in Santo Domingo so he can pursue the American dream of homeownership. "To own a house in this country is to begin to live," he tells Yasmin. But Ramon becomes angry when she asks about his wife, who sends him beseeching letters.

"I am pregnant when the next letter finally arrives. Sent from Ramon's old place to our new home. I pull it from the stack of mail and stare at it. My heart is beating like it's lonely, like there is nothing else inside me."

In This Is How you Lose Her, Diaz cracks open the lives of people like Yasmin and Yunior and offers insight into the immigrant communities where they reside and dream. But at their core, the stories in this masterful collection are about the vagaries and mysteries of the human heart.