A review of Lot by Bryan Washington
It is a tough book, Lot. Tough in setting, tough in subject matter, tough in language. Tough, very often, on its readers. Whatever else this book is, it is not one to be picked up lightly. And yet beneath all the rawness and rough edges of Bryan Washington’s prose lies a tenderness that makes this debut collection nothing short of devastating.
A recent winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize, Bryan Washington is one of the most exciting – not to say radical – young voices in American literature. Lot is the kind of debut that makes its mark, a striking collection of stories set in the author’s native Houston, all of which are bold, considered and utterly unflinching when it comes to depicting life lived on the edge in more ways than one. The characters that populate these pages are often teetering on the brink financially, physically and psychologically, hovering on the fringes of their families, society and the city itself. And just as the characters navigate the edges of existence, so too do they stay in the margins of our consciousness. The trick to Washington’s prose is that he withholds just as much – if not more than – he reveals, laying bare to us the intimacies of his characters’ lives whilst keeping us fiercely at bay. The Houston we must bear witness to is savage and withdrawn in equal measure.
With Lot, there is definitely a sense of ‘must’, of having to see levels of violence and misery that we’d really rather not. Even moments of human intimacy – mother–son conversations, two brothers playing baseball, people having sex – are imbued with a fierce physicality that often borders on the brutal, but what I found hardest to take was the sense of despair permeating Washington’s stories. Ruin is never far away from any of the characters, and there is a terrible inevitability to the arcs of their storylines – of course the wife having an affair with the ‘whiteboy’ upstairs is going to get found out; of course the father so proud of his son is going to run into him on the street one day, no longer the university student he believes him to be, but a homeless drug addict instead.
Part of this sense of crushing powerlessness stems from the way Washington so intricately links his characters with the city they live in. Houston is ever-present – each story is named for a different neighbourhood – and there is much brief but illuminating description of dilapidated streets, house interiors and the detritus that makes up the urban landscape. Houston is sometimes primordial – many neighbourhoods end in a bayou, an area of swampland – and other times grittily urban, a long chain of disorientating highways with ‘twilight at the end of every godforsaken intersection’. Other times still it presents its threat in the form of sweeping gentrification, with run-down shopping malls making way for stylish gated communities of which we are occasionally given half a glimpse. ‘The city wasn’t waiting on him’, one character realises as he fails to find employment or receive a pay cheque even when he does. Always, Houston is bigger than any of the characters, an unstoppable force in which they become entangled – many of them immigrants who literally cannot get away.
Setting is everything in Lot, a collection that has its feet planted firmly on the ground, but so too is language. Washington adopts the language of these streets, effortlessly inserting nuggets of Spanish and choosing not to mark his dialogue, so that what is said, thought and merely narrated all blends into one. The bold immediacy of his voice is striking, but very often it is what remains unsaid that has the greatest significance. Mirroring this, many of the stories end unresolved, finishing abruptly just as we feel something might be about to happen – even the unlikely possibility of redemption. As frustrating as this could be, it somehow isn’t, instead becoming just one more aspect of the inevitable. No matter where he takes us during a story, Washington will always return us to the edge.
Although wide-ranging, Lot is tied together by several threads that run through the entire collection. One is the main narrator, Nicolás, who appears repeatedly at various points in his life, and whose family members or friends occasionally take centre stage. Nicolás is gay – something he knows from a young age but finds it impossible to admit to his family, who all know anyway and effectively ostracise him because of it – and this too is a theme that recurs throughout the collection, providing moments both of extreme violence and profound tenderness. And very gently, through this exploration of sexuality and what it means not to conform to what your society or family might expect of you, Washington nudges us in a circle, from the relative innocence of the opening story, ‘Lockwood’, to the bruises and bitterness of ‘Elgin’ that still, miraculously, offers us that elusive promise of redemption.
Love is not given lightly in Lot – not between men and men, or men and women, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. And yet, if you look for it, it is there all the time, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain sight. Between friends, colleagues, partners, siblings, people and the communities they live in. Its sudden appearance (as at the end of ‘Waugh’, a story about a house of male prostitutes) or absence (the end of ‘Lot’, where Nicolás reveals his sexuality to his brother) is heart-wrenching, a swift uppercut that snaps our attention back to what this collection is really about. How the many is made up of individuals; how love often looks like loyalty; how life is messy and brutal and more nuanced than we will ever know. How ‘there’s the world you live in, and then there are the constellations around it, and you’ll never know you’re missing them if you don’t even know to look up.’
The complexity of Lot as a collection – its narrative threads, layered themes, apparent barefaced honesty and refusal to give us what we think we need – is the mark, for me, of an extraordinary literary talent, a profound voice speaking from a place that many people probably try not to look. ‘I know that even if we don’t always do the things that need to be done, we do the things that we need to,’ Nicolás says in ‘Elgin’, in the suspended atmosphere of the book’s final pages. With Lot, I get the distinct feeling that Bryan Washington has done both.
Bryan Washington’s first novel, Memorial, will be published in the USA in late October 2020 and in the UK shortly after. In the meantime, you can catch up on his writing in publications such as The Paris Review, Tin House, Catapult and The Awl. This article has, if anything, gained in relevance recently and I think is well worth reading in the light of Lot.