Tag Archives: Bryan Washington

Lot by Bryan Washington: No place like home

Cover imageBryan 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.

Books to Look Out for in August 2019: Part Two

August’s first instalment progressed smartly through the twentieth century while staying in the United States but this second preview lacks any neatly cohesive thread, I’m afraid. You may have noticed that it’s the centenary year of the Bauhaus school of design, the background for Theresia Enzensberger’s Blueprint which opens at the beginning of the 1920s. Luise dreams of becoming an architect, enrolling herself in the Bauhaus university where she’s taught by Walter Gropius and Wassily Kandinksy. While her art school friends immerse themselves in their work, street fights are breaking out in Berlin. ‘From technology to art, romanticism to the avant-garde, populism to the youth movement, Luise encounters themes, utopias and ideas that still shape us to the present day’ say the publishers. I already have my eye on Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game which shares the Bauhaus theme but I’m tempted by this one, too.

Back to the States for the next two titles beginning with Lot by Bryan Washington, set in Houston where a mixed-race boy, working in the family restaurant and fending off his brother’s blows, is coming to the realisation that he’s gay. ‘Bryan Washington’s brilliant, viscerally drawn world vibrates with energy, wit, and the infinite longing of people searching for home. With soulful insight into what makes a community, a family, and a life, Lot explores trust and love in all its unsparing and unsteady forms’ say the publishers promisingly.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels is set in San Diego where Big Angel is about to hold what may well be his last rowdy birthday party when his mother dies. Big Angel’s half-brother is in attendance at what is now both a party and a wake, all too well aware of his mixed race. The weekend passes in a celebration of both lives and the telling of a multitude of stories. ‘Teeming with brilliance and humor, authentic at every turn, The House of Broken Angels is Luis Alberto Urrea at his best, and cements his reputation as a storyteller of the first rank’ say the publishers.

It’s its structure that attracts me to Livia Franchini’s debut, Shelf Life, which comes highly rated by Sophie Mackintosh who described it as ‘whip-smart and slyly heartbreaking’. Thirty-year-old Ruth works in a care home and has just been dumped by her fiancé. As she works her way through the week’s shopping list item by item, she tells her story which reveals a life spent looking after everyone else but herself. Sounds a bit thin, doesn’t it, but as a lover of lists I can’t resist the lure of this one.

I’m signing off August with Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, which begins in 1989 when Saul Adler is hit by a car on Abbey Road. Apparently unscathed, he visits his girlfriend who insists on photographing Saul on the famous crossing then dumps him. Saul takes off to Berlin, two months before the Wall comes down. In 2016, he’s hit by a car on Abbey Road, dipping in and out of consciousness as a group of people gather at his hospital bedside, including his ex-girlfriend. ‘Slipping slyly between time zones and leaving a spiralling trail, Deborah Levy’s electrifying new novel examines what we see and what we fail to see, until we encounter the spectres of history – both the world’s and our own’ Very much like the sound of that.

That’s it for the second batch of August’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…