New York and Los Angeles tend to get all the ink, but you could make an argument that Houston is the most uniquely American big city there is. Sprawling and diverse, the Bayou City shows us how a variety of cultures can coexist and band together after hardships, such as the hurricanes that have battered the city over the past several years.
But cities change over time, and Houston is no exception. As Bryan Washington writes in his stunning debut short story collection, Lot, “Houston is molting. The city sheds all over the concrete. … [A]fter the storm, they pushed the rest of us out, too: if you couldn’t afford to rebuild, then you had to go. If you broke the bank rebuilding, then you couldn’t stay. If you couldn’t afford to leave, and you couldn’t afford to fix your life, then what you had to do was watch the neighborhood grow further away from you.”
Lot paints an unforgettable picture of Houston and the people who call it home. About half of the stories in the collection focus on a young man growing up on the city’s East End, a neighborhood he describes beautifully: “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 … in their kitchens on Wayland, sucking up all the air, swallowing everyone’s voices whole, bubbling under the bass booming halfway down Dowling.”
The narrator, whose name isn’t revealed until the book’s final pages, struggles to discover himself in a city where he only sometimes feels at home. He’s biracial — “too dark for the blancos, too Latin for the blacks” — and gay, and wrestles with his identity, trying to keep his sexuality secret from his broken family. His father has abandoned his family, a fact which embitters the young man: “When our father split, he took every sound in the house with him. Ma wouldn’t talk for another few weeks, at least not to us; so the last things she’d called him were what floated in the air.”
He works in his family’s restaurant, and spars with his siblings, especially Javi, his homophobic older brother. He knows he can never reveal his sexuality to Javi — when the two attend a funeral for a friend whom Javi suspects was gay, he makes his feelings clear: “When we made it to the body, my brother snatched my hand. He made me touch Rick’s face. He told me this was what happened to f**s.”
The stories that don’t involve the young man fill out a larger narrative of Houston in the early 21st century. In “Alief,” the residents of an apartment complex observe an affair between a married woman and her lover, which ends disastrously. And in “Waugh,” one of the book’s most beautiful stories, a group of young queer sex workers struggle when they find out that their de facto leader has contracted HIV.
It’s hard to overstate what an accomplishment Lot is. Washington, 25, writes with the wisdom and grace of someone twice his age — he’s a keen observer of human nature; his characters are flawed but not irredeemable, and he writes about them with a compassion that’s never condescending. The narrator of many of the stories is a particularly unforgettable character, broken but unbowed, and self-aware to a fault: “I still worked in the kitchen, but Ma filled in the gaps, covering for me, or hiring the stove by the hour, until I finally got the diploma and she cried at graduation and it became clear that the only place I was going was nowhere.”
Washington writes about family dynamics with a brutal honesty. The young man’s fights with his siblings and parents all ring true to life, as does his bitterness toward his absentee father, whom he blames for the destruction of his family: “My father was packing himself up from our lives,” the narrator thinks. “That was his master plan. He could’ve been discreet, if he’d wanted, but he didn’t. So he wasn’t. His flaunting was a choice. The audacity made it deafening.”
Perhaps the most important character in Lot is Houston itself, and Washington does a brilliant job making the city come to life in all its imperfect glory. His book is an instant classic of Texas literature, but it’s more than that — it’s a stunning work of art from a young writer with immense talent and a rare sense of compassion, and one of the strongest literary debuts in several years.