secondRyan Washington’s award-winning debut Lot, was a collection of high-impact stories told in part by Nicolás, a young black gay Latino in multiracial Houston. In one story, Nicolás scolds his older brother, Javi, for allowing him to sell drugs with him and his drug dealer friend, Rick. The narrator’s sense of illicit enthusiasm for being among the greats is enhanced by a sexually charged moment in which he and Rick count the winnings. Then comes an abrupt section break: Rick has been shot to death and we are at the wake. In front of the coffin, Javi grabs Nicolás’s hand: “He made me touch Rick’s face. He told me this was what happened to fags. “
Yes Lot could turn to shock to get out of a pinch (the above story is set in just six pages), Washington’s first novel, monument, is a more adult proposal. Set back in Houston, it follows Benson, a black daycare worker, and Mike, a Japanese-born cook, who have been together for four years. When Mike learns that his longtime father is dying in Osaka, he decides to fly, just as his mother, Mitsuko, appears out of nowhere in Texas.
Having to host Mitsuko alone in a one-bed apartment, without ever having met her, adds tension to Benson’s already difficult relationship with Mike. Just when he had mustered the courage to ask about having children, Mike brought up the idea of an open relationship and the memory of the harsh words that followed colors the difficult relationship situation that occupies the first third of the novel, with Mitsuko just as uncomfortable. like Benson. When she asks how he feels about her staying, and he says it’s okay, she says, “I speak well. Well means screwed. “
While monument Share LotWith an engaging conversational style (not to mention his notorious disregard for “white boys” and “white girls”), Benson’s segments, in particular, threaten to drown the book in self-pity. If some pleasantly awkward sex scenes provide relief as well as vital context, it also helps that Washington is too smart a writer not to realize that his subject of miscommunication can be funny and sad. Here’s Benson looking for news from Osaka:
“I start texting Mike.
I write, we are done.
I write, go to hell.
I write, the idiot is over.
I write How ru, and that’s what I send ”.
At times, the novel seems less like a portrait of a relationship than a splicing of two stories on the same topic: While Mike cares for his father, a former alcoholic who owns a bar, Benson has to deal with his own estranged father, a former alcoholic meteorologist fired for drunkenness in the air. The ambivalent dual narrative, between past and present, derives tragicomic power from a forceful coincidence: Mike breaks his radio silence at the exact moment that Benson finds himself kissing another man.
When Benson tells us he lives in “Third Ward, a historically black part of Houston,” it’s hard not to feel a pang from the dive of sinking or swimming from Lot, whose street voice had nothing to do with such easy-to-read subtleties. Still, Lot made easy choices in other ways and the more mature mess of monument it lies in part in Washington’s calculated uncertainty about what resolution should look like in a gay love story, as Benson and Mike seek answers to questions they don’t quite know how to ask. At one point, Benson tells his colleague Ximena that her fiancé is “a nice guy, but what if it doesn’t work out?” “No one ever knows if it will work,” he says, in a line that could be monumentThe creed: “That’s why you do this shit. Discover.”
• Monument by Bryan Washington is published by Atlantic (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism