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Lot: Making the city sing with sharp lyricism

Book Review: Bryan Washington’s short story collection focuses on the lives of marginalised citizens

Lot
Author: Bryan Washington
ISBN-13: 9781786497864
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Guideline Price: £8.99

Almost every line in Bryan Washington’s debut short story collection feels like a sucker punch. “When they finally disappeared it was overnight and without warning” goes the haunting description of one family’s deportation. “She was risking her life for poems” we are told of a young woman attempting to buy books in war-torn Kingston. “It’s honestly not even sad,” one narrator reflects on his incapacity to leave home, despite his father, sister and older brother all having preceding him.

The collection won the Dylan Thomas Award earlier this year, a prize worth £30,000 that celebrates the “best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under”. Washington, who is only 27, beat the likes of Téa Obreht, Ocean Vuong and Northern Irish poet Stephen Sexton to top spot. “Lot does what all good fiction does,” one judge noted, “finds a style that can open up a world that is otherwise unknowable.”

This book’s style is ambitious but never forced. Each of the tales is named after a different part of Houston, Texas – from Alief, “where motherf***ers were born, lived, and died without coughing a word of English”, to “Houston’s oasis for new money”, Shepherd, to South Congress, Peggy Park, Wayside. Even for those like me unfamiliar with the city, Washington makes the place sing with his sharp, rap-style lyricism.

His ambition for the book was to chart the city of Houston’s geography, focusing on the interior lives of his marginalised fellow citizens. This isn’t the apple pie Texas of southern belles and Stetsons. We meet sex workers, drug dealers, blacks, blancos and Latinos, and the snappy, telling sentences (“They read my name and they saw my face and they pointed to the dishes”, “I said she felt like she had to escape because she had no escape”) capture a whole social order in a mere few words.

Project of living

For most of Lot’s characters, the project of living is like moving through quicksand. Many operate from paycheque to paycheque, keeping their heads down in case they might be found out for any number of non-crimes, like being queer – “Javi said the only thing worse than a junkie father was a f****t son” – or the wrong race: “They were full Mexican. That made us superior.”

Though ostensibly a collection of disparate short stories, we return again and again to one central family running a restaurant in a “Lot” in Lockwood. A first-person narrator (whose name, Nicolás, we only learn three pages from the end) recounts these passages. We meet him as a young boy, having his first homosexual encounter with a neighbour, and later, falling for “the whiteboy”, and later again in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, when a lover is taking pictures of the wreck. “He told me I was lucky. I was living in a piece of history, and I said if I was so f**king blessed he should’ve grown up here himself.”

Race is explored in tandem with social class. One of the most beautiful, frustrating stories features Nicolás teaching Spanish to the aforementioned “whiteboy” in order to – and this twists like a knife – help him get a promotion. There is a burning sadness to the difference between their social positions, their shared “outsiderdom” (their homosexuality), and the fact that they are in love. “I dumped garbage all day, taught my whiteboy at night. This is how things happen. Even for us.”

A feeling of paralysis – that sense so often linked to the short story – runs through the collection. But it is offset by the fact that many of these characters are migrants. In one story, we are told that the narrator’s mother had “slipped into this country, this home, her life, on the whim of a fortune-teller […]after she’d told her, peasant to peasant, that good things came to women who looked to the shore.”

In another, having witnessed a neighbour’s deportation, the father, himself a migrant, remarks that they have witnessed a parable: “if you didn’t stay where you belonged, you got yourself evicted.”

Do good things come to people who “look to the shore”, who are upwardly mobile, as per the American dream? This book seems sceptical of the idea. But it is also full of nuance. We see the gradual gentrification of Houston – “blancos” moving into Lockwood and making it “like in the commercials”. We see people who benefit, and people who do not. We see people who are pushed out, people who escape, people who do not. We see people who are dealt their lot in life, and who get on with things, one way or another.

What Washington does best is to find a strange beauty in it all, without offering judgment or redemption.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic