Book: The immigrant who has one foot firmly planted in the United States and the other in the "old country" is an American archetype who continues to appear regularly in this country's fiction. Junot Diaz, born in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, depicts the experience of immigrants from that country through the memorable character of Yunior, a figure much like himself, who lived with his mother and brother in Santo Domingo until his overbearing father, who worked in the United States, returned and moved the entire family to New Jersey.
In his new collection of linked stories, This Is How You Lose Her, Yunior finds himself doubly alienated as an immigrant trying to find his way in the United States, and as an aspiring intellectual rooted in a working class milieu. (He meets one girlfriend in a class on James Joyce.) Yunior's double displacement makes his language an odd melange not just of English and Spanish (you'll need a translation app if you're not fluent), but also of literary references and homeboy slang, as in, "When I ask her if we can chill, I'm no longer sure it's a done deal. A lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, No, I'd rather not." (He's referring to Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener.")
Yunior is a guy who can fall hard for one women, but he has trouble remaining faithful to her, which is how he loses her. He thinks he might be a sucio, like his father — a lecherous womanizer. "You had hoped the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself," he says, referring to himself in the second person. Almost as soon as he says, in the first story, "I'm not a bad guy," you know that he thinks he is.
Why read? The point of reading fiction is to live for a time in the head of other humans, and experience the world as they experience it. The fiction of Junot Diaz brings the reader so deep into the narrator's head that the prose sounds like a transcription of the author's own thoughts about his own life. No one but the author can know how much of his writing is autobiographical, but all of it sounds like the author telling the kind of truth normally confined to a secret journal, or letters to a trusted friend.
Yunior is a marvelous character full of complexity and contradiction. Like a puppy, he follows the woman he loves exuberantly, but like a dog he's always looking for another sexual opportunity. A lover of language, he also revels in the neighborhood patois. In this short story collection he even goes from muscular to fat and back again. He can be sexist ("a chest you wouldn't believe — I'm talking world-class") and romantic ("The half-life of love is forever"). Living inside Yunior's head for a while provides a wild ride that will leave you marveling at how difficult living with one's self can be.
Make it: Pollo con Wasakaka (roasted chicken with garlic sauce) is a traditional dish of Yunior's native land, but the name of the dish also sounds like him — vibrant, exciting and a little crazy. Besides, it can be made with a couple of dozen drumsticks, which seems appropriate for a dish in honor of a guy who tends to view women as a collection of delectable parts.
Mix it: If you'd rather toast Yunior, an appropriate drink would include Mamajuana, a specialty of the Dominican Republic that contains rum, red wine and honey soaked with tree bark and herbs. Available as an import in well-stocked liquor stores, mamajuana is also easy to make, especially if you skip the tree bark and herbs. Use it as you would rum. For example, you might try a mamajuana mojito (2 ounces mamajuana, 1 ounce of white rum, a half-ounce of vodka, 3 ounces of club soda, a half-teaspoon of sugar, mixed with fresh lime juice and mint).
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.