Scooch over, Nathan Zuckerman. New Jersey has bred a new literary bad boy — and his name is Yunior. A Dominican immigrant with a fondness for women and weed and wordplay (in roughly that order), Yunior is the mostly decent, commitment-shy alter ego of novelist Junot Díaz — who grew up about a half hour south of Newark, the boyhood home of Zuckerman creator Philip Roth. Yunior first appeared in Díaz’s 1996 story collection, Drown, then had a secondary role in the 2007 Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as the title character’s college roommate. He’s the central figure in all but one of the tales in This Is How You Lose Her, a series of snapshots charting the evolution, such as it is, of a bright but easily distractible writer on the rise.
The yarns hopscotch in time, from Yunior’s first days in the U.S. as a boy (watching Sesame Street to learn English) to his high school years (including an affair with a much older neighbor) to his teaching stint at a Boston college (where his fiancée dumps him after finding emails from 50 women he’d slept with in the six years they were together). But these sketches offer more than a portrait of an artist as a young playa. There’s a real depth to stories like ”The Pura Principle,” recounting the slow death by cancer of Yunior’s older brother, Rafa. And Díaz writes with a unique voice that’s witty, pop-culture-inflected, and liberally sprinkled with Spanish (”Her father, who used to treat me like his hijo, calls me an a–hole on the phone…”). ¿No hablas español? No hay problema. In describing the particulars of one Dominicano’s often frustrated attempts to achieve romantic stability, Díaz deploys a universal language of the human condition. A