In March 2019 Bryan Washington published Lot, a book of short stories set in Houston that created, in brilliant, fragmentary form, the portrait of a person, of a family, and of a large and shifting community. Its Houston was not that of elite institutions and oil-and-gas affluence, but of immigrant communities from Mexico, the Caribbean, and beyond, at the hardscrabble end of a ruthless economy. It was an astonishing debut—the sudden appearance of a technically dazzling writer commanding total confidence in his grasp of an underexplored subject, or set of subjects. Washington has now followed Lot with a novel, Memorial, also set in part in Houston, about a disintegrating affair between two young men, one Black, the other Japanese-American, and examining more boldly than the stories the never-settled question of the meaning of home. It extends the reach of Lot in interesting ways but doesn’t surpass it in impact.
Lot, for all its demotic ease and energy, is a carefully constructed book: thirteen stories, progressing in time, and arranged in an alternating pattern. The seven odd-numbered stories are about a single family—Black mother, Hispanic father, daughter, and two sons—over a period of about a decade, all but one narrated in the first person by the gay younger son (the exception is a brief, almost hallucinatory interjection by the daughter). Their feel is personal, private, warily amazed by their own insights. The six stories interleaved with them enlarge the picture in powerful episodes about other characters: a drug dealer who discovers an unbearable truth about his son, a household of young rentboys who throw out their ailing pimp, a pair of teenagers who convince themselves that a creature they find under a bridge on the bayou is the vampiric chupacabra of Central American legend.
These stories are told in a variety of voices, some first-person, some not, beginning, in “Alief,” with a significantly collective “we”—a multiracial community’s account of an adulterous affair between a Jamaican woman and her “whiteboy” lover. Washington’s work is permeated by awareness of race, as it is of queer sexuality, but without exactly being about those things, which exist as givens in the world he immerses us in.
The tragic little narrative of Aja and James, an outsider figure in their volatile neighborhood of “backdoor migrants,” and of James’s murder by Aja’s husband, is presented as a shared experience of the friends and bystanders, something retailed, embroidered, and committed to memory. It is both a riveting story and a story about story, about how it may reflect or unite a community; gossip shades into myth, and in the process the community itself is subtly romanticized. Washington captures the strange exuberance of claiming and shaping even the most sordid events into memorable form—which is precisely his gift throughout this extraordinary collection.
The narrator of the family stories in Lot, whom we follow through adolescence to adulthood, goes unnamed through most of the book, and it’s hard to say why the moment, three pages from the end, when his name is finally spoken by a friend is so moving; it feels like an exposed intimacy, an uneradicated mark of his now dispersed family, and it would really be a spoiler to reveal it here. Not that it’s a rare name; but there’s a quality—part prose, part poetry—to Washington’s wider use of names that is similarly hard to define.
Each of the stories except one takes its title from a different area or street of Houston. To those of us who’ve lived there (in my case as a teacher at the University of Houston in 1998, when Washington was five) the names—Shepherd, Bayou, Fannin, Waugh—may have a resonance, and even a touch of nostalgic glamour, rarely felt by the struggling immigrants who are making their living there as laborers, cooks, drug dealers, or prostitutes. Even so, the Heights, East End, and Montrose are terms they have to learn and to live by, day by day, and in Washington’s hands they are parts of the fleeting lyricism of the city, with the dull gleam of much-handled currency.
The one story not named in this way is the central one, “Lot,” which refers to the family property, a restaurant with their apartment above, where the narrator has lived with his mother, often working downstairs, through the successive absences and then complete disappearance of his father. Jan, the sister, will get a good job, find her own whiteboy, marry, and have a child. The presence of the elder brother, Javi, is caught in quick, unsettling touches—we watch him bringing girl after girl to the boys’ shared bedroom, coming back from his first knife fight, and then, thrown out by their mother, going off to the army and getting killed in circumstances no one quite wants to clarify. His relations with his little brother, who after messing around a bit with girls is quickly and guiltlessly drawn into a world of gay pickups, are caught in two poignant scenes, remembered after Javi’s death.
The first is a haunting emblem of brotherly love patiently misdirected. Javi drags his little brother away from watching Princess Mononoke on TV and forces him outside in the dark to “take notes on being a man” by learning to hit a baseball. “Useless,” he says, after every missed shot:
But he stayed out there.
He didn’t tell me to kick rocks. Didn’t deem me obsolete. Didn’t manufacture an excuse to disappear. Didn’t knuckle me in my ear until blood came out. All that would come later, like he was making up for lost time. But that night, he stayed with me, with the moon whistling and the cars in the road and the grass inching beneath us like caterpillars.
Again, he said, shaking his head, squeezing my shoulder.
The economy of this, the ironic shifts of register (“deem me obsolete” as a dry little euphemism for what Javi must later have said), the memorable strangeness of the “whistling” moon overhead and that coarse Houston grass that squirms underfoot, are typical of Washington’s unforced concentration, the confidence the entire book gives off that a lot can be done in a small space.
Both the stories and the novel are marked by moments when things fail to be said—a person expects an answer, or senses an opportunity to speak, to communicate, to change things for the better, but lets it pass. The missed opportunities deepen a mood of regret, but speaking itself may be dangerous. The narrator’s second memory of being with his brother is a brutal counterpart to the baseball evening, a failure of brotherly understanding in a brief scene in which he compulsively tells Javi, home on leave, about his gay life; Javi says nothing and then fiercely knocks him to the floor. The look on Javi’s face afterward is the thing the narrator will most remember him by once he’s dead—an image of trust rewarded only by violence.
When his mother sells the lot, she is marking the end of an experiment—one son’s dead, the other’s not going to marry—and she heads off to Shreveport to be with her sisters. The area’s coming up, and it seems a good time to cash in. In the long final story, “Elgin,” the question of an escape is confronted. Will the narrator leave too? There’s “no reason to stick around unless you’re a kid. Or you’re broke. Or you got stuck like Ma.” Will Miguel, his fellow worker at a fashionable restaurant in Montrose, join his own parents and return to Guatemala? Or, if you haven’t got papers, is it better “to make a quiet life in Houston’s crevices”? The city with its many districts is all borders—as Washington says in Memorial, “It’s possible to drive from one hub of Houston to another, only to end up feeling like you’re in a whole different country”—and even in the Montrose restaurant, to pass from the “flash and new money” out front to the kitchen behind is to “cross border after border.”
If Lot shows Washington to be a natural short-story writer, it also suggests, in its linked episodes, a cautious fascination with the form of the novel. Memorial connects in many ways to the world of the stories, and it is pleasing that it also turns out to be named for a Houston landmark, Memorial Park, the scene of a final scattering of ashes, a well-caught moment that as Washington scrupulously notes “isn’t very beautiful.” The novel develops the stories’ insights into gay sexuality and the dilemmas and struggles of immigrant life, and adds new dimensions to his portrayal of the ever-mutating city of Houston. It also follows the members of one family moving back and forth between Houston and Japan, powerfully dramatizing the migrant’s uncertainty as to his true home.
The gay couple at the center of Memorial are Benson, a Black day-care teacher, whose work life is touchingly and wittily evoked, and Mike, Japanese-American, a bit older, who makes his living as a cook. Beneath the novel’s choppily contemporary surface, a sturdy, almost conventional plot can be discerned. The set-up is virtually Neil Simon, or as Benson says, “some fucked-up rom-com”: on the day that Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, flies into Houston to stay with them, Mike flies out to stay with his estranged and dying father in Osaka, leaving Benson alone with the prickly and disoriented Mitsuko in their one-bedroom apartment.
While a new domestic relationship is slowly forged between the two strangers, different in race, age, gender, and sexuality but brought together by Mitsuko’s cooking, the relationship between Mike and Benson, which seems to have reached a terminal stage, is cast into a limbo of indefinite duration. How long will Mike stay in Japan, working in his father’s little neighborhood bar? Will the passing of time make Benson and Mike, who already plays around a bit, look for other lovers? How will things be when Mike gets back? The uneasy comedy of accommodation in Houston is matched by a much darker drama in Japan, colored by the mutual resentment of father and son and the inevitable approach of death.
Among the novel’s many strengths are its fluent conjuring of the textures of everyday life, much of it in dialogue; its charged evocations of preparing and eating food; and its repeated glimpses of the strangeness of one culture—its habits, standards, and expectations—to another. Racial consciousness is pervasive in public. When Benson goes to pick up a parcel with Mitsuko, he notes the “light-speed calculus” of the FedEx woman’s gaze. Pickups of a sexual kind may be soured by racial slights, and an interracial gay couple is a double anomaly. Colleagues and others make quick friendly adjustments; within the family the adjustments may be more difficult and prolonged.
Benson’s father, a once well-known weatherman, “a man whose guffaw commanded entire newsrooms,” has lost his job and descended into alcoholic chaos in Katy, one of many small towns now being absorbed by the outward sprawl of Houston. Benson’s mother has divorced his father and remarried, and Benson finds himself, in one painful ten-line chapter, unable to enter her new home. Each of the four separated parents accommodates the sons’ relationship with different degrees of avoidance, reluctance, or dawning tolerance. They may also, you feel, be a little puzzled by it.
This relationship is at the heart of the book but somehow undefined by it, and in many ways hard to understand. The mystery Memorial addresses is purposely that of the affairs that millions of us have without quite knowing why or even if we want to—for comfort, for experiment, for sex, or faute de mieux. It’s a daring stab at an awkward truth to create a lasting fictional relationship in which so little beyond food and sex is shared, with sex itself, at moments of tension or rupture, a powerful, wordless compulsion: “At this point, we only touched each other to fuck.” Washington acutely captures the evasive, bit-by-bit, time-just-passing nature of it all; how such an affair is liable to peter out and leave both participants unsure how much its ending or continuing would mean to them. The reader’s conventional desire for the couple’s success is mixed with a similar uncertainty.
In a narrative of glimpsed, avoided, and unarticulated feelings, a great deal depends on the narrator’s powers of observation and suggestion. Benson, shy and oblique though he is, feels a fully inhabited character, blessed with something of the author’s own perception. The challenge for Washington is to sustain interest through the long middle section, nearly half the novel, narrated by Mike, describing his time back in Osaka with his dying father and also touching, in brief flashbacks, on the history of his affair with Benson. This is inherently a strong device, the seeing of already established story and character from the point of view of another participant. And the accounts of their meeting, Benson spotted first on an app—“And now here he was. IRL. In a flannel and khakis,” sober at a party where Mike is already charmlessly drunk—exploit this double vision very pleasingly. Washington can convey a person’s presence with minimal physical description, but we know that Mike is fat, and the moment he first takes his shirt off for Benson, expecting stifled dismay but finding only admiration, is a happily sexy one.
There’s no suggestion that either Benson or Mike is actually writing his story; this is the standard use of first person as inner monologue, emphatically colloquial though prinked now and then with fancy words, which in Mike’s case can seem not quite in control: “Ma would set her lips on my earlobe, whispering all sorts of shit in Japanese, annunciating in the most ridiculous tones”—where “enunciating” seems the wanted word, and either word is far enough outside Mike’s normal idiom to cause some confusion as to what sort of person he is. When he says his first impression of Benson was that “he was stupefyingly shy,” he shows on the page a lexical reach and a literary tone not evidenced in anything he actually says.
In fact Washington has made Mike, I think intentionally, an incurious narrator, with a lack of tenderness for things he describes, which appear simplified or brutalized by his own tension and misery. “Fuck” and “shit” are multitasking verbs and nouns throughout the book, but in Mike’s section they are more relentless: angry intensifiers or weary stand-ins for more accurate words he can’t be bothered to seek out. Of his father’s deck garden: “No one had fucked with it in months”—where “fuck” means to take care of; two pages later: “If you decided to fuck me one last time,” where “fuck” means the opposite, to do me harm. This shortly after an actual fuck (“after I’d fucked him”) and framing a conversation in which Mike thinks he’s going to leave “this fucking island,” stuff “everything back into this tiny fucking duffel, bringing this whole misguided fucking trip to an end,” but knows he can’t because “I was still the fucker’s son.”
It’s effective in a way, as a sign of a temperament and a predicament: his father’s first words on seeing him again after sixteen years are “What the fuck?” and their dealings with each other are generally abrasive. Mike is unhappy and angry because he feels unloved and doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and the niceties of noticing, in such a situation, are beyond his reach. His narrative reads like the self-portrait of a depressive, in whom nothing stirs interest, much less delight; in Osaka as in Houston, Mike’s relations with those nearest him shrink to a functional minimum. But for a novelist this is a risky device, denying the reader access to a more precise picturing of scenes and a more involving grasp of character.
Washington’s writing feels completely contemporary, with a fine sense too that the contemporary is always the transient. It’s striking, then, that in Memorial, more than in the stories, there’s a thinning-out of contemporary signifiers, an absence of what might have been useful local events and references. Hurricane Harvey remains a decisive episode, and a student of demographics could probably date the changing fortunes of Houston’s neighborhoods, the erasures and the gentrifications that affect Mike and Benson’s histories. But there’s oddly little in the way of news. Nothing is said of when events happen or of the political situation—in Lot a mayoral election is mentioned but there’s no sense of what it might mean for anyone in the stories, and no one seems to notice who is in power, in Houston, in Texas, or in the White House.
In the story “Lot” there is one reference to the Internet—through which yuppies now sometimes discover the family restaurant—and occasional use in other stories of texts and cell phone photos; in Memorial the Internet seems not to exist, beyond the dating apps that bring Benson and Mike together. With it go other things, such as music, which is only ever background noise, part of the acoustic impression of a bar or a neighborhood. Television too tends to be “white noise. A stack of commercials”; no one watches it out of any professed interest in a program, or in what is going on in the larger world. Sport goes unnoticed—none of the ragged energy here of Lot’s “Peggy Park,” a breathtaking three-page riff about young men gathering for ad-hoc baseball games and their subsequent fates, generally terrible, but now and then inspiring.
In the world of Lot two women, exceptionally, get to read—Baudelaire, Milton, Plath. But in Memorial, beyond a woman glimpsed with an Elena Ferrante novel, no one ever refers to a book. It’s reasonable to suggest that in most of the hard-pressed lives of Lot, politics is as much a luxury as reading; in a ten-page story, as in the world it describes, there’s little time for such things. But in a three-hundred-page novel of life in a world dramatically in flux, the sense that no one is interested in anything is more disconcerting.
Fortunately, Washington creates interest, and in the third section of Memorial the large latent questions of home and love come to a guardedly moving resolution. The narrative motor of the book is the future of the two young men’s affair, but its real crisis is Mike’s need to decide where he belongs—in Osaka he is “home,” but as the first Japanese customers he meets there say at once, “you’re not from here.” A final twist throws new light on our assumptions about his parents’ history, the question of who, in a tug-of-war between two cultures and two ideas of the future, has abandoned whom. The bond between Benson and Mike is tested and interrogated, with Benson recalling the seven separate times Mike told him he loved him, and the time he finally said it back. Washington fences the sentiment very effectively—things unstated are nonetheless strongly felt. We remember that what Mitsuko was whispering in Japanese in her little boy’s ear were the words I love you, I love you over and over—an annunciation, perhaps, after all.