Bryan Washington’s Lot comes garlanded with praise from all manner of people not least Max Porter, whose own writing has caught the eye of a multitude of reviewers, but it was Jami Attenberg’s description of it as her ‘favourite fiction debut of the year’ which piqued my interest. Billed as a collection of short stories, Washington’s book comprises thirteen pieces – some snapshots, others much longer – all firmly rooted in Houston, Texas. That said, for me it read like a fragmentary novella through which runs the story of a narrator whose name we finally learn in the book’s last section.
The son of a black mother and a Latino father grows up in a rundown Houston neighbourhood where his family scrapes a living running a restaurant. Our narrator discovers a liking for boys while his brother entertains an endless parade of women and their sister works hard at finding a way out. Their father eventually leaves, packing his bags after a long string of nights with his lover, then our narrator’s brother joins the army after one too many skirmishes and his sister marries a white man. Finally, his mother goes home to Louisiana leaving him alone, faced with the question what’s keeping him and finding a surprising answer. Threaded through these episodes are stories of others who share the city: a beautiful woman whose affair with a white man ends in tragedy when the local gossips reveal it; two sushi restaurant workers who think they’ve found a way to make their fortune with a strange creature found abandoned; a young man’s john becomes his lover offering kindness he can hardly believe. These thirteen pieces are woven together to form a tapestry of life in a city full to bursting with diversity.
East End in the evening is a bottle of noise, with the strays scaling the fences and the viejos garbling on porches, and their wives talking shit in their kitchens on Wayland, sucking up all the air, swallowing everyone’s voices whole, bubbling under the bass booming halfway down Dowling
The sense of place in Lot is so strong you can almost see, smell, taste and hear it. There are neighbourhoods where one of the smartest things a boy can do is get himself apprenticed to a well-connected savvy dealer, others where white boys who see themselves as cool live because they think it’s the real Houston while those with no choice are hoping for escape. Washington’s writing is striking: sometimes poetic, often raw, vibrant and immediate. Here’s a tiny sample of the many quotes I pulled out:
It was the house you shook your head at when you drove up the road
My father was a handsome man. Wore his skin like a sunburnt peach
We filled the corners with our silence. It leaked into the hallway. If you didn’t know us better you might call us content
He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around
These are stories which explore, sex, love, identity and the meaning of home with empathy and wit. They’re not always an easy read but the writing is so powerful sometimes it makes you stop to catch your breath.