‘Miss Lora’ by Junot Díaz

“Years later,” it begins, “you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it?” Done what? Fallen in love with Miss Lora. “It was 1985,” says the narrator, Yunior. “You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker. You were also convinced… that the world was going to blow itself to pieces.” The prospect of death is everywhere. Yunior’s brother, Rafa, is dying, and is long dead by the time Yunior starts telling the story. The story is ostensibly about Yunior’s sexual education by Miss Lora. She is his neighbour, older than him, a teacher at a local school, and much more experienced. She awakens in him a knowledge of his own sexuality, although, far from pleasing him, this knowledge only leaves him confused and angry. But really, indirectly, the story is about Rafa, and about Yunior’s search for words to fill the space opened up by his absence. Miss Lora is ancillary to this exercise: Yunior knows that Rafa would show only confidence if he were to take up with Miss Lora, and part of Yunior’s retelling involves trying to use Rafa’s language to reanimate his brother’s spirit, to convince himself that he can feel what Rafa would feel in his situation. Ultimately, though, words fail everyone. The relationship turns sour, and the final pages unfold like a slow apocalypse of refusals to speak and of spoken words that lack the power to change things.

From This Is How You Lose Her, Penguin 2012; read it at The New Yorker here

‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’ by Junot Diaz

I am usually not very interested in stories about writers are having trouble writing, guys from working class backgrounds who feel like outsiders in academia, or men who moan about having lost the woman in their life by behaving badly. Diaz’s story is all three of these things. Yunior – a character very much like Diaz whose life Diaz has tracked in other stories – has lost his long-time girlfriend when she discovers the breadth of his disloyalty. “She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but because you’re a totally batshit cuero who never empties his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty!” His back is damaged from carrying heavy pool tables when he worked in a delivery service before he became a writer. Middle-aged and alone, he can’t see how he can find a relationship again. Why is that Yunior wins me over in this story? Is it that he has some sense of proportion and recognises that his problems, when compared to those of his friend Elvis, an Iraq war veteran, aren’t the worst? Is it that he’s not really all that precious about his misery? I sit the way he describes his “exile” in the racist and provincial city of Boston? “White people pull up alongside you at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mother,” Yunior explains. When he looks like he might find himself through, with grace and humour but no happy endings, I’m rooting for him.

From This is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books), first published in The New  July 23, 2012 and available online here

‘Invierno’ by Junot Diaz

From Diaz’s second collection, This Is How You Lose Her – unsurprisingly, men in foundering or vanishing relationships feature heavily – ‘Invierno’ is a child’s-eye story. It recounts the arrival of the collection’s central character, Yunior, in the United States from the Dominican Republic. Yunior’s father has been living alone in America for the past five years, and the meat of the story is the family’s attempts to reconnect with one another. But the most affecting image is of Yunior and his older brother, Rafa, sequestered in their claustrophobic apartment, their father too protective to allow them outside to explore their new home.

(This Is How You Lose Her, 2012, published by Faber)