Drown

New Price: $16.00
Used Price: $1.96

Mentioned in:

All the Dumb Young Literary Stand-Ins: On Arthur Bradford’s ‘Turtleface and Beyond’

In his other life as a filmmaker, Arthur Bradford made a fantastic documentary about the making of an episode of South Park called 6 Days to Air. The title references how quickly Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and crew are able to produce a half an hour of blistering animation, and in one particularly insightful moment, Parker offers this bit of writing advice:

I sort of always call it the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens. Whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” and “therefores,” makes for better writing.

What he’s talking about is narrative economy, about figuring out the most efficient way to tell a story, but he’s also tapped into something deeper — namely, that the power of scenes is, in many ways, relational. Stories work best, in other words, when sequential action is causal or obstructive.

One can see why Bradford would make a documentary about these guys. The stories in his new collection Turtleface and Beyond are positively stuffed with “buts” and “therefores.” The stories even function almost like episodes, and, as Parker instructed, each story employs skillful economy. A young man named Georgie is our narrator, and this consistency greatly increases the impact of each story as the collection moves along: Georgie is more and more defined, so we don’t need to be reintroduced to him, leaving Bradford with the chance to move directly into his weird, funny adventures.

In the opener, “Turtleface,” Georgie watches his friend unwisely decide to run down a cliff face into a river. Amazingly the friend makes it into the water. Unfortunately, he smacks his face into a floating turtle. Georgie, tellingly, seems to care as much for the now-broken turtle as he does for his cavalier buddy, even bringing the little guy home until he’s mended. Later, in “Snakebite,” Georgie and a few friends stop to help a hitchhiker who’s been bitten by a cottonmouth. Georgie, of course, ends up being the one to suck the poison out (a doctor asks him later, “Why the hell did you do that?”). And still later, Georgie gets mixed up with a partner at a law firm who’s going through a mid-life crisis. Georgie, with nothing but the best intentions, becomes the lawyer’s middleman for drugs and prostitutes.

The point is: Georgie is a good guy who ends up in some compromising situations. But Georgie’s goodness is more than just a character trait –– it’s a narrative strategy. Through his hapless narrator, Bradford is able to push the stories into some absurd territory, because Georgie means well, and doesn’t always see where his choices will take him. In other words, Georgie grounds the stories for the reader, weighting them so they don’t float off into pure silliness.

Sometimes, Georgie should have seen the shit coming. When he gets “fired from my job for a stupid indiscretion,” (which, we readers assume, refers to the time he slept with a patient at a mental institution where he was an orderly, but could be referencing any number of other fuck-ups) he wants to “leave town.” The person with whom he finds a ride is a man named Paul O’Malley. Here is the ominous (but also very funny) preview of their trip together:

Paul was passing through town on his way to the West Coast and had announced that he would be gone in the morning. I saw him two weeks later though, right after I’d been fired from that job. He was wandering downtown, looking a little dazed and strung out.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” he told me.

“I thought you were going out west,” I said.

“I am.”

“But you said you were leaving two weeks ago.”

“I got hung up. Wait, two weeks? It hasn’t been that long.”

“Yes, it has.”

“Oh.” Paul scratched his head.

Most of us would probably take Paul’s sudden loss of two weeks as a sign to avoid spending hours alone and on the road with this dude, but Georgie, desperate and good-hearted, jumps right in. (Spoiler: the trip doesn’t go well).

Yet this is another part of Georgie’s charm: he’s willing to do stupid, irresponsible things — dangerous, illegal things — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a decent person. Take, for instance, the funny and poignant story “The LSD and the Baby.” Yes, Georgie agrees to go out into the woods with a guy named Richard to “sample a batch of LSD he recently completed.” And, yes, he doesn’t object when he learns that a woman named Sabrina and her baby are tagging along. But when both Richard and Sabrina disappear into the woods (presumably to have acid-enhanced sex), good ole Georgie takes the baby’s life into his own hands, first to a hospital (the baby eats some possibly poisonous berries) and then to his job, and all while tripping balls. Georgie only gets a quiet yet dignified catharsis at the end of the story, but it’s a lovely moment.

I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then, of course, going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and even further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all –– from Bradford to Hemingway, the lot of them –– often just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way. In many cases, we assume the narrator is a stand-in for the author (or, as in Gessen’s case, he takes all the pretext of guesswork out of it by naming his narrator Keith), and we often interpret each piece as some form of self-reflection. They read easy, almost like reportage, and their authenticity is built into the voice, the rhythm and flow of the prose. Sometimes, though, the shallowness isn’t a disguise for anything more meaningful than the story itself, which places great weight on the likeability, and not to mention the humanity, of the protagonist. Sal Paradise, I can live without. And to me Dean Moriarity seems like a real asshole. Yunior, though, I adore. And Georgie, well, Georgie’s a good dude in my book. As I read, I wanted to follow along with him, so even when a story didn’t exactly work as a whole, I didn’t mind — Georgie had my back.

It’s been 14 years since Bradford’s last story collection Dogwalker. In the meantime, he hasn’t been what anyone would call prolific, but he’s been living quite a life. He worked in New York for a while, he recently wrote, and he “directed a summer camp, made several films, had two children, and currently works at a juvenile detention center in Portland, Ore.” And it’s true: the stories in Turtleface and Beyond do read like the result of someone with a multitude of absurd experiences, real, visceral familiarity with these people, this world depicted within its pages. Good for him.

Alice Munro, First Nobel Laureate of the MFA Program

Alice Munro does not have an MFA degree. She comes from a time when few Americans, and even fewer Canadians, found it necessary or expedient to pursue graduate study in creative writing. Though Munro was not produced by the MFA culture, she has been embraced by it to an extent unparalleled by any other living writer. When I visited the MFA program where I eventually enrolled, I was only a minute or two into a conversation with a second-year student when he asked, “Do you love Alice Munro?” Before I could answer, he added, “Because everybody here really loves Alice Munro.” It was true. One professor diagrammed the craft of Munro’s stories on a wipe board, using a complex notation of cylinders and arrows I struggled to understand. In another workshop, each student was required to choose a story from Munro’s Selected Stories and introduce it to the class.  (I picked “The Turkey Season” and was impressed by the easy, unforced rhythms of the dialogue, though I don’t remember noticing much else.) Last Thursday, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the euphoria among my writer friends and acquaintances was palpable. There seemed to be a common feeling that Munro was ours, a writer’s writer uniquely beloved by the workshop.

When I began teaching, I couldn’t miss the fact that excerpts from Munro’s stories were used to illustrate almost every principle of craft. In the textbook most commonly assigned in introductory fiction classes, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, she is cited in the sections on effective use of subtext in dialogue, on how to move over long spaces of time in summary, and on revision. No other writer — with the possible exception of Chekhov, to whom she is often compared — seems to have this universal applicability. It would be possible, one imagines, to read a Munro collection as certain people read the Bible, opening the book at random and sticking a pin down on the page. Surely you couldn’t fail to come up with a passage that would illuminate your own understanding of technique, and do it in a style that seemed both accessible and effortless. In those early years, I dutifully taught and studied Munro’s stories, but when I wanted to reread a story for the sheer pleasure of it, I went not to The Beggar Maid but to Junot Diaz’s Drown, or to Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. I appreciated Munro, I respected her, but — as we’ve all surely learned by our mid-twenties — that’s not the same as being in love.

We live in an era when North American readers are increasingly well-versed in the language of the writer’s craft. Book reviews in the New York Times and other major venues routinely focus in on questions of delineation of character and the construction of sentences. Tens of thousands of undergraduate students enroll in creative writing classes every semester, and the database maintained by Poets & Writers currently lists two hundred and three graduate programs offering the MFA degree. Studies of the institutionalization of creative writing by scholars like D.G. Myers and Mark McGurl claim that the examination of technique is a secondary function of a writing program whose real purpose is to coach students through the labor of self-expression, but the widespread fascination with the minutiae of Munro’s craft would seem to indicate otherwise. The joyful reaction to the news of Munro’s Nobel among American writers and readers of literary fiction has to have something to do with the fact that we understand, or think we understand, how she does what she does. One doesn’t have to look far for an analogy: I like listening to Gil Shaham play the violin, but I’d probably like it even better if I knew a fingerboard from a pegbox. Reading Munro, noticing an abrupt but somehow perfect ending to a scene, an Austenian moment of indirect discourse, we must be getting smarter even as we enjoy ourselves.

As a teacher, I went back again and again to her stories, gaining through rereading an appreciation of the subtler aspects of her craft. Joan Silber, author of As Long As It Takes: The Art of Time in Fiction, praises Munro for her use of what she calls “Switchback Time,” “a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames…us[ing] the shifts in an order that doesn’t give dominance to a particular time.” Often we move back and forth between the end and beginning of an affair, a marriage, a life, until the two narratives come to possess equal weight and interest. Here Munro transgresses what I teach to my classes as a rule — that the present time of a story must be more interesting and carry more weight than the flashbacks — but does it in a way that can be explained and discussed, perhaps even imitated by anyone who has the courage to try it. I kept on studying her stories, and trying to share their unique brilliance with my students, even after I came to suspect that the author herself might not entirely approve of my efforts to interpret and explain her methods. The story “Differently” opens with a scene of an unsuccessful lesson on the craft of fiction:
Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things.  Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people.  Think, he told her.  What is the important thing?  What do you want us to pay attention to?  Think.

Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it.  Georgia herself thought it was a fake.  She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story.  The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out.
Perhaps it is simplistic or wrong-headed of me to read this passage as Munro’s comment on the university study of creative writing. She would know better than anyone that a story must be a complete thing in itself, that one requiring an appendix has bigger problems than a lack of authenticity. And yet it is worth noting that she is not — like other writers beloved by the workshop; like Tim O’Brien, for instance, or Richard Ford — a staple of university reading series. She has never, as far as I have ever heard, taught in an MFA program as a visiting writer, or even flown in for a few days of readings and craft talks. Her use of what Silber calls Switchback Time could be seen as an infinitely more sophisticated version of Georgia’s appendix, an effort to put more into a short story than the form is supposed to be able to support. I suspect — though I may well be projecting — that Munro would find in the university-trained fiction writer’s obsession with craft in general and with her work in particular a kind of well-meaning naïveté, a dotty insistence on missing the point.

As I left my twenties and entered my second decade as a teacher of creative writing, I found that I could now answer my MFA classmate’s question in perfect sincerity: I loved Alice Munro. I loved her not because of Switchback Time or her ear-perfect dialogue, but because her stories had become part of my inner landscape. Like my favorite scenes in Austen and George Eliot, Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, these stories hold in retrospect the intensity of my own memories.  If writing a poem is like living twice, reading Munro is like living over and over again, lifetime upon lifetime in the space of a single story. My deepened appreciation for her work may also have something to do with what I’ve experienced in what I think of in my non-literary life — marriage, motherhood, the loss of family and friends. I have an idea that she may be, like George Eliot, a writer better understood on the far side of thirty.

In the days since the announcement of her Nobel, as I walk around replaying scenes from Munro’s stories in my head, I’ve found that the passages that come back to me are not the teachable moments I’d point to in a class discussion, but snippets whose power and brilliance seems to elude my efforts at explication. The scene in “Save the Reaper” when a woman named Eve foolishly leads her young grandchildren into a nightmarishly strange house in an Ontario cornfield; or the climactic moment in “The Beggar Maid,” when Rose sees her ex-husband Patrick at an airport many years after their divorce and he greets her by making an ugly, hateful face. I could and did recite the final lines of that scene — Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could — but I couldn’t explain to anyone, least of all myself, why they lingered with me so powerfully. Those passages aren’t how I teach writing, but they’re why I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher, in the first place.

Years ago a friend of mine cautioned me to not to teach my classes like the Chris Farley Show, referencing the nineties-era SNL skit where Farley ineptly interviews artists that clearly impress him too much. Instead of asking Paul McCartney or Martin Scorcese questions about their careers, Farley summarizes important moments in their work and then tells them they were “pretty awesome.” Implicit in my friend’s advice was the idea that it was insufficient to simply praise a piece of writing for being unbelievably good. It wasn’t critical. It didn’t actually teach anybody anything. I believe he was right, for the most part, but when I think about the happiness that I and so many of my writer friends seemed to feel at the news of the Nobel, I wonder if what I need in my life is a little less craft and a little more Chris Farley. Instead of talking about how Munro does what she does, wouldn’t it feel good to just let the stories happen? Remember that one part in “The Albanian Virgin,” and “Runaway,” and “Friend of My Youth”? That was really great. That was pretty awesome.

A Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz

I saw Salman Rushdie speak at Columbia University about nine years ago. He was a good performer. Put it this way, he had enough charisma to defend the Iraq War, which had started a little over a week before, to a Columbia audience without getting booed. Everyone had an important question for Rushdie. He only had time to take a few and the last was met by a collective groan: “Do you have any advice for young writers?” As people filed out of the theater a few minutes later, you could hear a chorus of undergraduates calling the poor questioner a tool. Rushdie’s answer had been equally dismissive: “If you need my advice, don’t do it.”

I thought about that night, as a study in contrasts, after I saw Junot Díaz speak at Seattle Town Hall last month. Díaz was an expert performer. He paced the stage with perfect posture, gave shout outs to his fellow Dominicans and then his fellow New Jerseyites. He treated the audience’s questions as precious gifts of silver. Almost every comment was “beautiful.” A middle-aged teacher relayed her students’ questions about Drown, which they had recently studied. A young comic book geek of color talked about how good it felt to be represented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz was there to celebrate the act of reading. When someone asked him what advice he had for young writers, he recommended that they spend less time writing for the approval of other writers and more time writing for readers. He much preferred hanging out with readers than writers himself.

It’s hard to draw a line between this gentle social democrat who seemed so comfortable with his body on stage, as prepared to run for Congress as to appear on Oprah, with Yunior, the acerbic narrator who has lain at the center of Díaz’s fiction for 15 years. Díaz chronicled Yunior’s childhood in his first short story collection Drown and reintroduced him as an angry, smart, and oversexed young man in Oscar Wao. Díaz’s third book, This is How You Lose Her, is made up of nine stories, telling the story of Yunior’s failures in love.

Díaz and I spoke by phone three weeks after his appearance in Seattle, and a few days after he was awarded a MacArthur.  A few days after we spoke, This is How You Lose Her  was nominated for a National Book Award.  He was in New York.  What follows is a pared down version of our conversation.

The Millions: I saw you on stage at Seattle Town Hall a few weeks ago. And you were peppering your talk with very academic words – “subjectivity,” “heteronormativity,” “hegemony” – none of which appears in your fiction. When you write your fiction, do you find yourself writing with two voices in your head? One is [that of] the former Rutgers student activist. The other is Yunior’s, which does not have this vocabulary.

Junot Díaz: To move the metaphor towards optics, I’m not certain if it’s that bifocal. I think it’s a lot more complex than that, especially with a character like Yunior who has proven himself in a number of texts to be far smarter than he wishes or allows others to be aware of.

[O]f course – if we’re going to use the tech terms my students [at MIT] use – there’s language that may not appear on the interface but is a deep part of the operating system…A character like Yunior is really aware of these words. He changes his words to best effect. He has no interest in anyone really knowing who he is and in anyone understanding the depths of his complexity. And this of course goes hand in hand with all his failures across the board with women.

TM: You’ve spent about 15 years of your published life and longer, just considering when you started writing him, living with Yunior. What has it been like living with someone like this for so long?

JD: I find someone like him very difficult because as a construct inside me he rarely talks about the things that emotionally matter to him most. He’s so damn elliptical… You think he’s a piece on a chessboard and he’ll do anything I tell him to. But that’s not really the way it works. Each character is a game. And once the rules are in place you got to follow the rules of the game. Even in breaking the rules there are rules…

One [of the] differences [between us] is that I would have made the obvious hardships and dramas vis-à-vis his family [more front and center]. But as a character he doesn’t like to make that stuff front and center. He will state [a problem] or he will dramatize it in the most subdued way. And people are paying attention to other things and rarely notice. I feel like if it were up to me and I just wrote a realistic essay about this character’s life it would be far more frightening [to lay] out the details of it than the fictional representation in the way that Yunior tells stories. He’ll mention stuff that’s happened to him but it’s always on the back burner. Part of me longs for a character who is, how do we say it, a stereotypical memoir-esque character who wishes everyone to know the hardships that they suffered and wants to parade all the traumas around. But he’s not that guy…

He’s been a fascinating person to create and to do work with. In many ways, I owe him both my career and much of my art. But my god, what a difficult cat. He never likes to say things straight.

TM: Out of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her, you make one attempt in “Otravida, Otravez” to write from the point of view of a woman. Why is that in here?

JD: [T]his of course makes no sense to anyone, but for me it’s one of the larger projects in the book. And this is my thesis in This is How You Lose Her: Yunior’s inability to imagine or sympathize or think about women in interesting ways. It’s revealed at the end of This is How You Lose Her that the book that you have read is the book that Yunior has written. And so we know that he has written “Otravida, Otravez.” And it’s an attempt for Yunior to say, “This is the best I can do with female subjectivity. Does it show that I’ve changed in anyway after everything I have done or doesn’t it?” So in my mind it’s all connected.

The average reader is going to be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The average reader is going to be, “Okay, I need a little bit more help than this.” The average reader is like, “Well that’s a real nice ghost framework, but it’s not present enough at the textual level.” I understand that. I feel that, like a fool, I always try to hide more than I should.

TM: Do you think Yunior could sustain that voice for the length of a novel, not just a short story?

JD: I would raise serious questions about that. [laughs] I don’t know. I think of my own abilities. I think that I, perhaps, might be able to do it. It’s very different when I write the sections of Oscar Wao from Lola’s perspective and “Otravida, Otravez,” from Yunior’s perspective. It is very different when you try to write a piece where there’s no hidden, filtering subjectivity. It’s just my [own] male subjectivity and not this other male subjectivity, [Yunior’s], that I’m trying to critique and also hide behind.

I think I would be bad. Let’s say that in both cases maybe I’d be able to do it but it would probably be very bad.

TM: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” read like a dark comedy about depression as much as a tragic coda to the collection.  There was a long distance between your first and second books, which you linked in one of your interviews to your battle with depression. Was this story your way of writing about depression?

JD: It’s weird, because of course we use whatever experience we have to model whatever we end up writing [about]. So there’s no question that my own depressive state helped me design Yunior’s. But I think part of what mattered to me in this was that larger project. We see a character like Oscar Wao in the novel able to be public in his family that he’s depressive, that life isn’t always easy. [And he does that] even in a culture that like many cultures looks down on many kinds of mental health issues or tries to silence them…

And then I was really interested in Yunior’s character because Yunior is this guy who tries through his body to avoid psychic issues, to use his body to sidestep the psychic weight of trauma. And you know when you’re reading the book what you begin to notice – and again this is my own obsessive egghead shit – is how Yunior begins to somatize slowly his psychic states. He’s not able to address them emotionally. But his body is reacting to the shit that he has to put up with. Whether it’s him biting his tongue and bleeding out or other things that happen to him. And it’s a slow progress. By the end of the book you get that his body can no longer be a block or a shield. His body absolutely collapses as it somatizes fully his own depression, his own misery, his own grief. Grief not only about breaking the heart of the woman he loved but grief about everything that comes before.

There was a silence about depression in the larger culture that I inhabit but even in my own work.  I thought [it] would be great to break [that silence] a bit. But again you end up organizing this stuff as an artist. So you do this weird shit where you plot the mental breakdown through the whole book.  And you hope that the nerds will figure it out and if not – fuck it – you hope that someday someone else will just enjoy it on another level.

But depression fucking sucks, dude. Depression sucks. And part of you thinks, “Well if I have to deal with being fucking depressed, I’ll figure out some way to make some art out of it.”

TM: You just got your MacArthur grant and I’m assuming you’re going to use that to write your big science-fiction novel.

JD: I’ve had plans before and they haven’t come to shit. So fingers’ crossed, man. That would be the dream.

TM: A number of high-brow literary writers have dipped into science fiction: Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, and even, arguably, Philip Roth in his alternate history The Plot Against America. Do you see any mistakes these writers have made that you fear repeating?

JD: I guess my interest in the genre is actually in the genre. I don’t want to write literary fiction’s take on genre. I actually like the genre. I think that nobody who reads science fiction, no one who reads apocalyptic literature or reads alternate earth literature is confusing Philip Roth’s book for one of the classic texts in the genre. So I do think that there’s stories that are so squarely within the genre that there’s no possibility that they can be slipstreamed, that there’s no possibility for anyone to say, “Oh well this might be fantasy but it’s fantasy for the high brow set,” like someone might say about Lev Grossman’s wonderful novel, The Magicians. “It’s fantasy, but it’s not that kind of fantasy.” And I guess I’m just interested in that kind of fantasy.

I don’t think I’m worried about mistakes as much as I’m interested in writing squarely in the genre and not what is often called slipstreaming. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not colossally privileged vis-à-vis other people who write squarely within the genre. You get the notice that they never get…We are not talking about the hundreds of books written by people within the genre that cover the same ground as some of these literary people but we are talking about these literary people. And the reason we’re talking about them is they’re fucking privileged.

2012′s Literary Geniuses

This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:

Junot Díaz is no stranger to readers of The Millions. His novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was tops in our reader poll for the best books of the first decade of the millennium (and #11 among our panelists. Martha Southgate told us why.) It’s also a Millions Hall of Famer. Díaz first came to our attention with his incredible debut collection, Drown, and he recently returned with another hotly anticipated collection, This Is How You Lose Her, which was recently a jumping off point for an essay exploring Díaz’s “niftiest literary trick.” Finally, Díaz once graced these pages, sharing unique reading recommendations as a participant in our annual Year in Reading series.

Dinaw Mengestu has two books under his belt: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air. Mengestu became known to a wider audience after being named to the New Yorker’s widely discussed20 under 40” list in 2010. Mengestu, who was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but moved to the United States when he was two years old, was also one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” authors in 2007.

Journalist David Finkel is best known for his work as a staff writer at the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. He is also the author of the book The Good Soldiers, which is an account of his time embedded with a division of Army Rangers in 2007 as part of the “Surge” meant to turn the tide in the Iraq War. That book won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which is given to a book that exemplifies, “literary grace, a commitment to serious research and social concern.”

The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

“I’m not a bad guy,” begins the first story of Junot Diaz’s new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. A few lines later, the narrator, Yunior, fills in the details:
See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties 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. Magda only found out about it because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.
For longtime readers of Junot Diaz, this opening riff will sound promisingly familiar. First there is Yunior himself, who figured in many of the stories in Diaz’s debut collection, Drown, and narrated some of the more hilarious sections of Diaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won a Pulitzer and transformed Diaz from a MFA-world fave into a bestselling author. Then there is the story’s subject, the “typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole” in love and in trouble, cheating on the girl of his dreams and spending the rest of the story trying without success to win her back.

Most of all, though, there is that distinctive Diaz voice, somehow both conversational and profoundly literary. No review of Diaz’s books fails to mention his narrative voice, the way it combines Spanglish street slang with sci-fi nerd talk and, in his later work, a frosting of academic jargon. That’s all there, in spades, in This Is How You Lose Her. In one of the later stories, “Miss Lora,” in which teenage Yunior falls into a Mrs. Robinson-type affair with an older woman in his housing project, Diaz moves in the space of a few short pages from untranslated Spanish dialogue, to a comprehensive list of 1980s nuclear holocaust films, to an offhand reference to the “atavistic impulse to die alone, out of sight.” And this is the same story in which Yunior describes Miss Lora, a skinny, muscular ex-gymnast, with the line: “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub.”

But amid the verbal pyrotechnics, Diaz’s niftiest literary trick is hiding in plain sight: his deft and surprisingly widespread use of the second person. With another kind of writer the fact that three of the nine stories in the collection are narrated in the second person, and a fourth is directed to an unnamed “you,” would be viewed as a stylistic coup, a la Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Here, it passes almost without notice. But just because Diaz does such a good job of masking this narrative tactic behind a barrage of jokes and Spanglish bombast doesn’t mean he doesn’t use it to devastating effect, or that it doesn’t shine a light on how Diaz manages to dance so precariously along the color line that, four years after the election of a black president, still pervades American life.

Take that opening paragraph from the collection’s first story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”: “You know how it is,” Yunior says of his decision not to tell his girlfriend about his cheating. “A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life.” Already, just a few lines into the story, you – whoever you are, white, black, brown, American, Dominican, German, Aussie – are complicit in Yunior’s crime. You know how it is. Even better is the line about the incriminating details in the girlfriend’s letter: “Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.” It happens so quickly and so effortlessly that you don’t realize that in eight words Diaz has supplied you not only with a scarlet letter’s worth of sexual indiscretions, but a girlfriend, a girl on the side, and a group of “boys” to listen while you brag about it. You, my friend, are a player, a Latin chick-magnet, a sucio, and all you did was open a book and start reading.

This is one of Diaz’s greatest gifts, the intimacy of his voice, the way he invites you over to his place to smoke a few bowls and talk about girls, the way, in story after story, he lets you in on the fun. From the story, “Nilda”: “She was Dominican, from here, and had super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe – I’m talking world-class.” Or from “Alma,” who, it transpires, “has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.” The scene is so vivid, so real: four or five guys sitting around an apartment, beer bottles and pizza slices everywhere, the blare of the TV drowning out the traffic outside, you pull up a seat, somebody passes you the pipe – and, boom, Yunior starts in on one of his stories.

But there is a subtle divide in these stories, and in the way Diaz employs that narrative “you,” that only becomes clear when you step back from the book for a day or two. Five of the nine stories in This Is How You Lose Her date from the late 1990s and more or less comprise outtakes from Drown. The other four stories are more recent, three of the four having appeared in the New Yorker in the last two years. While many stylistic tics and thematic concerns link the two batches of stories, something strange and sad has become of the “you” in Yunior during the intervening years. In the early stories, Yunior talks about “you” all the time, occasionally referring to himself, but more often as an appeal to his listener, the “you” reading the story who is invited to share his pain and his joy. In the later stories, though, “you” isn’t an occasional visitor; more often than not, the entire story is written in the second person, as if “you” isn’t Yunior at all, but someone else – a younger, uglier, more dangerous Yunior he is trying to rid himself of by calling out in public.

This is especially true of the last two stories, “Miss Lora” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which are both narrated in the second person. In “Miss Lora,” which like many of the stories here, has the dream-like formlessness of recovered memory, Yunior seems to be speaking to quite literally to a younger version of himself, warning that younger “you” away from his secret love affair with a lonely older neighbor the way the audience shouts at the hero of a horror movie, “No! No! Don’t open that door!”

In “Cheater’s Guide,” Yunior, like his creator and alter ego, has moved to Boston to take a teaching job a prestigious university – Diaz is a professor at M.I.T ; Yunior appears to be teaching at Harvard. But success hasn’t made him any less of a horndog, and at first “Cheater’s Guide” seems like a return to form, yet another raunchy, self-deprecating Yunior story that begins, as all Yunior stories must, with the line: “Your girl catches you cheating.” But as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that nerdy young chatterbox Yunior has grown older and sadder, saddled with the mental and physical afflictions of middle age. He is still obsessed with his body, but when he takes up jogging, he tears a ligament in his foot, and then, when he joins a yoga studio (“Mad fucking ho’s in there,” his best friend Elvis tells him. “I’m talking ho’s by the ton.”), he ends up rupturing a disc. Yunior is alone and he is hurting, and for the first time he is losing his cool.

I found “Cheater’s Guide” one of the most emotionally bleak stories Diaz has written, and also one of his most honest. Diaz has certainly never shrunk from dealing openly with race, but in all three books, no matter what racial madness was happening on the page, I as a white reader always felt included among his boys, the “you” in his stories always seemed to include me. In “Cheater’s Guide,” it didn’t. Yunior is openly angry, and while most of his ire is directed at the women in his life and his failing body, white people are starting to piss him off, too. He’s a tenured professor and yet he can’t cross Harvard Yard without some security guard asking for his ID. White kids throw soda cans at his head, and it seems like every time he stops at an intersection some crazy white person starts screaming at him and giving him the finger. “You take it all very personally,” Yunior writes, most definitely not including whiteboy me. “I hope someone drops a fucking bomb on this city, you rant.”

No, Yunior is not a bad guy, but he is growing up, and as Diaz is honest enough to admit in this collection, getting older isn’t necessarily all mellowing out and seeing the error in your youthful ways. Sometimes, it seems, you can spend your whole life clowning, turning all that rage into jokes designed to make the very people who anger you most laugh the hardest, and then one day that stops working. You’ve done it – you’re a success, a big-deal professor read by millions, and still you’re pissed off.

And then what? I don’t know. But I plan to tune in for Yunior’s next appearance to find out.

A Year in Reading: Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. His highly-anticipated first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published this year. His debut story collection Drown was also a national bestsellerMy favorite books of the year? The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, which is about the craziest whiteman’s journey into the heart of Africa you’ll ever read…and that’s saying a lot since they’re all pretty crazy; and The Arrival by Shaun Tan – no one has written (or drawn) a better book about immigration, about the hope and fear and love that drives it – no one. In a period where a nation of immigrants has decided that immigration is evil, Tan’s is the kind of book that reminds us that nothing could be farther from the truth.More from A Year in Reading 2007

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR