December 31: “The Sun, The Moon, the Stars” by Junot Díaz

Happy New Year, Story366! Wow, I can’t believe it’s the last day of 2016! A year ago—as in a regular 365-day year ago, I started this project, cajoling Karen into figuring out WordPress for me, some time around 5 in the evening, and before midnight, I posted on Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana” from Fortune Smiles, the first of 366 straight days of posting on stories, on authors, on collections. When I started, I never really thought about today, and by that, I don’t mean I doubted myself—I just mean I never thought about the last day, pictured the finish line; I’m more of a day-at-a-time person. Right now, I can see the finish line, can make out the texture of the red band stretching across the invisible plane, the band I’ll tear through with my chest. Maybe I should become that picture-the-goal guy more often. I kind of like it.

In any case, as I type this, I’m both excited and sad as I will not be reading and writing about a collection tomorrow for the first time in over a year. It’s not that I couldn’t do one—as noted in past posts, I’m continuing on next year, only not every day—it’s just that we have a huge day with family stuff, some traveling to do, a lot of baking, and a lot of, well, I just need a day off. Plus, if I do one tomorrow, then maybe I’d do one the next day, and before long, the stupid part of my brain will start telling me that I could do it again, do another year, or heck, just do it every day for the rest of my life. This has been great and all, but really, I need to divide and conquer, work on the novel I started at the end of 2015, write some stories, maybe read a novel or two, and get my ass on the treadmill. I could keep this going, but I’m simply not going to. It’s like when Cal Ripken, Jr., just showed up at the ballpark one day and told his manager he didn’t want to play, after nearly twenty years of running out on the field every day. I’m not comparing myself to Ripken, but he said he just wanted it to end to he could do something else, be defined in another way. He could have played that day, played every game until he retired or got injured, but he didn’t. He made the choice, made it happen by his own hand, by his own rules. I’ve had a fantastic run, but really, my rule was, on January 1, to do this for one year. I need to end it before it consumes me, makes me not like it, ends because of something else, like a family emergency or other such medical situation. That would suck.

Yesterday, a friend and former student, David Keaton, posted on FB about kidnapping me today, preventing me from finishing, some kind of How to Eat Fried Worms scenario (so far, I haven’t seen him today). More ridiculous or sad or whatever, I’ve thought a lot about dying since I posted on Kathleen Collins yesterday, started thinking ironically, as in, wouldn’t be ironic if my ticker just threw in the towel, one post left to go? Karen, on our way out today, told me to fasten my seatbelt, just in case, thinking of the blog, thinking of this 366th post-to-be. I’m not out of the woods quite yet, but yeah, to let you know, mortality has been the theme of this New Year’s Eve, me thinking I might die—and yes, I’m thinking that I might die tonight or tomorrow, after I post, this project the only thing keeping me alive. So, if that happens, that would suck, too, though I’d bet Story366 would get some mongo-record hits for a few days.

I wanted to do someone special for the last day of the year, starting things off with Johnson, one of my favorite writers, using his reigning NBA winner to launch the project. I considered many writers for the back half of the bookend and settled on Junot Díaz a long time ago. Like so many other books this year, I’m embarrassed that I’ve not finished This Is How You Lose Her (out from Riverhead) before, but hey, as I’ve said so many times, that’s why I did Story366, to assuage my guilt, to bring closure to so many of those bookmarks sticking out from the middle of so many books. Since Díaz is one of the preeminent authors of our time and one of my favorites—I’ve taught both Drown and Oscar Wao in multiple classes—I reserved the honor for him.

I’d read a lot of the stories from This Is How You Lose Her before, either in The New Yorker or anthologies like Best American Short Stories, having used “Nilda” many times in classes (replacing the long-standing “Fiesta, 1980” as my Díaz du jour), but there were a few that I’d never read. I’ve now finished this book—nice closure for a day of closures—but will write about the lead story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” one I’m pretty sure I’d seen Díaz read from before (on YouTube or something), but never read, never got to the end of.

In any case, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about, like so much of Díaz’s work, Yunior, a guy who emigrated from Santo Domingo to New Jersey when he was a kid. Most everything I can think of by Díaz involves Yunior and his family, I think, including Oscar Wao, where Yunior is at first a minor character, arriving later in the book, but then turns out to be a larger player, and eventually, is revealed to be the book’s narrator. In any case, I read another Yunior story today, “Invierno,” about the first couple of months he and his family were in Jersey, stuck inside because of the cold, while “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about older Yunior, somewhere around the time Oscar Wao takes place (though I have to admit, I couldn’t draw you a timeline). At the outset of this story, Yunior has just gotten back together with Magda, a girl he met in college, the girl who just may be the one. Only Yunior made a mistake, though, as in major fuck-up, having a brief affair with a woman from work, a mistake magnified and confounded by the fact the mistake woman wrote Magda letters outlining every infidelity, in detail. But again, the story starts with Magda and Yunior getting back together—all of this stuff with the other woman and the letters comes out in backstory passages—a reunion that makes Yunior pretty happy.

Really, though, once you sleep with someone from work and then they write letters to your steady about it, is it even possible to come back? Yunior wants that, but of course, Magda’s not in 100 percent. Can she trust Yunior? Is it too late? Everything becomes more complicated when they realize they booked a trip together to Santo Domingo before all of this went down, have the plane tickets and hotels paid for, meaning they either have to go together or will have blown a lot of loot. Yunior sees the trip as a way to start over, while Magda looks at it as big-time pressure to be normal, to be like they used to be, and most pertinently, be together 24-7.

In the Dominican Republic, this scenario set in motion, Yunior finds it even more difficult to obtain Magda’s forgiveness—let alone sex—than when they were back in Jersey. The trip starts with a couple of days at Yunior’s grandmother’s house—not sure what he was thinking there—but then moves on to the most illustrious resort on the island, which brings up all kinds of socioeconomic issues that serve as a backdrop to the story. Magda, in the sun and elegance of this Dominican resort, looks better to Yunior than she ever has, and maybe that’s because he can’t have her or even be close to her, or maybe it’s because she really is better off now that she’s distanced herself from him. In either case, the trip to Santo Domingo does not go as Yunior had hoped, and even though he knows he only has himself to blame, it’s hard for him, at this stage of their relationship, to recognize that.

I won’t go any further into the plot, having revealed enough already, but Yunior runs into other people on the trip, people who play roles, both major and minor. As with all of Díaz’s Yunior stories, there’s also the predominant theme of Dominican masculinity and machismo, questions that come up in all of his work, whether Dominican men are scoundrels because they’re Dominican, and if it’s something they can avoid, or at least outgrow. This is the primary question that Yunior faces, both in the past and present, making the stakes in this story beyond what happens between him and Magda: There’s an existential identity crisis at work here, one Yunior is still working through, at last we checked.

Junot Díaz is one of the great talents the writing world has to offer, and as far as I can tell, he can do no wrong. I feel gratified that I finished This Is How You Lose Her today, the same day I’m finishing this yearlong adventure, fitting for both chapters to close at the same time. I’ve read a lot of great books this year, and this final one can be placed right at the top. I know I’ll read many, many more great books in the future, too. Not sure when I’ll write a post next, or even what New Year’s Eve holds in store, but hey, Story366, stay safe out there, have a great 2017, and I’ll see you on the flipside.

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