In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent books which have won major awards from the literary world. Bryan Washington’s Lot, recent winner of the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “In the city of Houston—a sprawling, diverse microcosm of America—the son of a Black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He’s working at his family’s restaurant, weathering his brother’s blows, resenting his older sister’s absence. And discovering he likes boys. Around him, others live and thrive and die in Houston’s myriad neighborhoods: a young woman whose affair detonates across an apartment complex, a ragtag baseball team, a group of young hustlers, hurricane survivors, a local drug dealer who takes a Guatemalan teen under his wing, a reluctant chupacabra.”
Whether it is through the eyes of the speaker or through the eyes of the observer, Lot is a braided narrative centered around themes of growth, change, and loss. The blunt yet poetic tone of Bryan Washington’s style embodies a multifaceted desire to change life, and it narrates well the imperfect success of that journey to change. It is a raw yet wise prose, like that of someone close who has seen and lived through much and shares the truths they found as an answer to another’s struggle.
There are specific lives portrayed within the novel that are incredibly compelling; an Afro-Latino youth discovers himself and his homosexuality in this gray area between clarity and obscurity, and he does this alone in a household where his sister leaves and becomes distant; where his brother is troubled, seeking belonging in gangs, drugs, and sex; where his adulterous Latino father hides in his mistress of a higher social class than their own; and where his Black mother lost her faith in family a long time ago and is the last to leave him behind. Another is an apartment complex community of which speaks with one voice. They discover a difference, a harmful one, an adulterous woman in their lot, and that community speaks of her in a way that regrets how her path to change her situation led to holes in the community: a death and an arrest. These are just two of the narratives that show Houston, Texas as a space where those who stay struggle with change or steadfastly reject it and stay complacent in their situations, others involving drugs, homelessness, and more.
Overall, Lot is about life. Houston is its setting—its “lot”—where the lives of people of mixed identities, singular and/or merged, exist in all their complexities, their intersections, their positives, and their negatives. It displays the truth of coming and going, how those left behind are affected by their families, found, dysfunctional, or otherwise who left. It views intimacy like a spectrum on the positive and negative binary, and it rests in the middle where adultery leads to pain or numbness; where exploration of bodies leads to secrecy but discovery; where sex is a trade-off, two bodies desiring to feel something, to learn, to pay bills. It takes us through the world of drugs and drug dealing, removing its glamour of danger and showing it as just another way to make ends meet. We see how money changes people, how poverty is a chronic pain, how situations come to a point where people chase their needs, blind or numb to consequence. We see how lots in life alter when others make moves to break the cycles of monotony, and it is both a somber yet unforgettable experience.
Take a look at a map of Houston. It shouldn’t work. Over twelve freeways colliding into this city with the 610 circling its boundaries. There’s not a greater metaphor for Bryan Washington’s Lot where we collide with a myriad of stories including a crew of male prostitutes, an aunt from Kingston visiting after losing her child, a Guatemalan drug dealing apprentice, two friends caring for a wounded Chupacabra, and if I left a few out, I’m sorry. All of these stories crashing into to the center while we circle around and around on the 610 following the son of a Black mother and Latino father as he comes to age and his own homosexuality while enduring and learning from an older brother as his father slowly disappears in the distance.
Our coming-of-age narrator can’t leave his mother behind after the rest of the family have left in various ways until eventually even she leaves and then we realize it is so much more than that. And this is how his stories open to us, diverting off the path we assumed we were on, finding an off ramp we weren’t expecting. It’s what kept me reading and re-reading.
These stories are bound in the lost, desperate for a map, and the need to hold on to whatever they can for just one brief, fleeting moment. How could you encapsulate a city like Houston or any city in America where the rich and poverty-stricken meander between borders, where the undocumented work for the elite, where genders and sexuality bend but do not break? Washington finds a way through sharply written and poignant prose, bouncing from the disenfranchised voices that truly carry a city on their backs.
Bryan Washington’s Lot does not announce itself as a novel on the front cover, instead opting for the descriptor: stories. This distinction not only prepares the reader for the loose interconnectivity of the tales within, but also perfectly encapsulates the intention of the author. Lot is a collection of stories that come together to create a mosaic of an overarching narrative. By eschewing linear plot in favor of a strong sense of place, richly spiced by the lives that inhabit those places, the book reads like poetry.
But the beauty is that Lot doesn’t need plot, it doesn’t even need characters. Names and places are handed to the reader sentence by sentence, becoming sensations. Though often about rude sexual awakenings, illicit affairs, and the brutal realities of poverty and loss, Washington’s prose presents these stories as if they were gossip freely shared over evening wine between two old friends, years after the fact. And it is in this informal peeling back of the curtain where Washington shows his greatest strength, his understanding of people and his appreciation of place. From the sweltering heat of Nicolás’s “shotgun” home on summer nights, to the Corolla that doubled as the “pharmaceutical” offices of the suave Avery, Washington knows these characters intimately, and he has lived in these places.
The reader comes away from each story with a sense that the small slices of life they present are building on one another. Taking in all the stories together, the through line becomes a theme of inevitability; this manifests as both stagnant inevitability, related to the circumstances of the character’s surroundings and life, but also the inevitability of change, through escape or loss.
Bryan Washington’s Lot provides a lucid sketch of Houston and its diverse neighborhoods, urging the reader to reconsider their ideas of home, agency, and love, because the lives that its characters are born into are so fraught with sociological and familial complications that the reader’s very sense of the world becomes convoluted.
Washington’s characters face feelings of isolation, regret; feelings that they were born into impossible circumstances with inevitable failures, insatiable desires; and yet still—these are characters who, throughout the entirety of the collection, encounter brief and euphoric moments of love, of transcendence, that leave them “wondering if anyone in this whole shitty country could be as lucky as us.” Lot is stock with personalities that are tuff, gruff, mean, belligerent. Characters who shoot themselves in the foot and often know that they’re doing it, who are quick to cause physical and emotional harm to the ones they care for. But Washington’s understanding of and love for his characters proves luminous in every story, on every page. This is a young writer who is confident in his style and unafraid to write truthfully about the world he knows. Bryan Washington should be a name that we should get used to hearing in the writing world, and this collection has me eager to pick up his recently-released novel, Memorial.
Curated by Brandon Williams