Southern Discomfort

Lot: Stories BY Bryan Washington. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 240 pages. $25.

The cover of Lot: Stories

The protagonist of the linked short stories in Bryan Washington’s debut collection, Lot, does not give us his name—at least, not until we have earned this privilege. First, we have to let him usher us through Houston’s working-class neighborhoods and into the lives of queer people of color clinging to their jobs and homes as the city changes around them. The stories unfold in the confines of restaurant kitchens and cramped homes, places where the hard logic of economic precariousness can turn people into enemies just as easily as it can turn them into kin. In Washington’s portrait of the Houston underclass, trust is hard-won.

Lot is a book about how the formation of small communities within a community can provide ballast against racism, economic disparity, and homophobia. It is also a book about how these forces make this kind of intimacy hard to attain. At its core is a novella told in stories and narrated by our anonymous protagonist, interspersed with other glimpses of urban life drawn from across Houston’s sprawl. With a light touch, Washington shows us the struggle of the marginalized to survive in a city ravaged by increasingly devastating hurricanes, spiraling rents, and the threat of economic displacement. Yet he never fails to delight in the moments of unlikely pleasure that outsiders often fail to see.

The novella’s protagonist is an unusually perceptive Afro-Latinx boy, the quiet child in a family of willful personalities, who rides out the waves in a chaotic home. His mother, a black Louisianan, is that home’s rock. Though Washington provides few details of her personal history, the specter of Hurricane Katrina and the black diaspora it flung across the American South hangs in the background. The boy’s Mexican American father, whose charisma is matched by the cruelty of his self-involvement, wears her down with his serial philandering. In an early story, he takes a bold, shameless pleasure in his infidelity, returning from affairs in the early hours of the morning and less than subtly removing his belongings from the family’s home in preparation for an exit. “My father was packing himself up from our lives,” the narrator reminisces. “That was his master plan. He could’ve been discreet, if he’d wanted, but he didn’t. So he wasn’t.” The boy’s siblings—his gang-affiliated, violent, abusive brother Javi and his haughty but perceptive sister Jan—absorb the lessons of their father’s cruelty. Intent on surviving in a home bereft of compassion, they fail to provide their brother anything resembling familial support. During a period of unusual kindness on their father’s part, the narrator asks Javi if he might be back for good; Javi’s response is to kick him in the head. “Idiotas,” he spits. “That’s what you and your mother have in common.”

The narrator’s sense of his own sexuality takes shape in this crucible. While his older brother begins to emulate his father, our protagonist discovers that he is attracted to other boys. Washington treats this realization with clear-eyed assurance; he presents the boy’s queerness as merely another facet of life in Houston, one he happens to share with a constellation of young men throughout the city. When a migrant Mexican family moves in next door, the narrator becomes fascinated with the son, Roberto. One of the hallmarks of urban poverty is the decomposition of the illusion of privacy. As Roberto’s family’s financial situation worsens and they struggle to stay in their home, a certain kind of closeness takes root; soon, the neighbors are in and out of one another’s homes. The narrator and Roberto don’t waste the opportunity to explore their attraction. “The first time we tugged each other his father was sleeping beside us,” the narrator recalls. “They’d cemented the 610 exit and he’d found himself out of work. It was silent except for the flies above us, and Ma on the porch with his mother, promising that they’d figure it out.”

That recollection speaks to what I admire most about Washington’s writing: He has a knack for deceptively straightforward images that collapse the distance between the city, economic forces, and personal lives—or reveal this distance never to have existed in any meaningful way at all. The stories in Lot often read like urban histories written at the individual level. “Lockwood” takes its name from Lockwood Drive, a street that demarcates the East End district of Houston, and we come to know the struggles of its residents through a quiet image. During one of the boys’ dalliances, Roberto climaxes in bed beside his father and the narrator covers his mouth; rather than the sounds of Roberto’s pleasure, he hears “our mothers sobbing, and the snores overlaying them, and the Chevys bumping cumbia in the lot across the way.” Here, Washington has crafted a social-realist aesthetic able to chart the complex emotional topographies of working-class life; his prose entangles us in these overlooked landscapes, giving us a visceral sense of such hidden spaces. At its best, his stark language, often shorn of names and concrete identifiers, achieves a lyricism that enlarges our awareness of the mesh of personal experiences that make up the city’s history.

Washington’s queer men are often in the closet or relegated to the margins, and the collection masterfully conveys the atmosphere of mingled dread, exuberance, and defiance that pervades their lives. Staring out at the world from the backs of crowded restaurants or beneath freeway overpasses, they see a city they must navigate strategically. Violence is a constant presence; after Rick, one of Javi’s gang associates and a closeted queer man, is shot to death in “Wayside,” the narrator’s family attends the wake. “This was what happened to fags,” Javi warns the narrator as the brothers stand before Rick’s casket. In the collection’s best story, “Waugh,” a sex worker named Poke reels after learning that Rod, the older worker who took him in while he was wandering the streets, has contracted HIV. The news strikes terror into their community. “They didn’t know much, but they knew about HIV. They knew the way it hung over Montrose.” When other sex workers find out Rod has contracted the virus, he is banished from the community that he built. These and other threats require Poke and his friends to find pockets of safety in which they can fall into and rely on one another. “Waugh” is a brilliant story because it makes clear that these retreats aren’t without their joys: Upon waking dazed and with only one shoe in a client named Emil’s apartment, Poke finds the immigrant standing “barefoot, in a plaid button-down and slacks. He held some naan in one hand and Poke’s second shoe in the other.” An endearing scene of domestic intimacy follows. The question is whether Poke, so shaped by his experiences of uncertainty, will allow himself to take pleasure in Emil’s affection. Lot’s chief protagonist does not appear in “Waugh,” but Poke’s struggle echoes his emotional journey. It’s a journey most of the characters must undertake.

Ultimately, though, Washington uses individuals to tell a story of Houston’s collective life. This is both the book’s greatest strength and a source of some frustration. Washington sings a Whitmanesque song of the city, hoping to encompass all of its aspects. At times, that song is beautiful. In the title story, the narrator describes the afternoon rush on the neighborhood restaurant that he runs with his mother, and the resulting image is riveting in its embrace of Houston’s cultural bricolage: “Same faces every day. Black and brown and tan and wrinkled. The viejos who’ve lived on Airline forever. The abuelitas who’ve lived here for two hundred years, and the construction workers from Calhoun looking for cheap eats. The girls from Eastwood my sister left behind. The hoods my brother used to run with downtown.”

In these moments, when single voices blend into an anonymous chorus, Washington’s stories take on the tone of fables with something vital and universal to say about communities of color. Elsewhere, this impulse to capture a sense of the city’s sprawl results in gorgeous descriptions of Houston but contrived narratives and vaguely drawn characters lacking convincing psychology. In “610 North, 610 West,” the narrator’s father inexplicably brings him on a trip along the title route to his mistress’s home in another neighborhood. Neither the narrator nor the mistress seems particularly disturbed by this episode. Walking out of the bedroom in a tank top and panties, the woman brings the narrator a cup of water “You look thirsty. . . . You should’ve said something earlier” is all she says. When the narrator and his father return home, the incident disappears into silence. “I sat at the table beside [my mom]. My father opened his mouth, but then closed it.”

Sometimes the collection’s language can be lyrical to a fault, smothering Washington’s meaning in layers of abstraction. “Once, I slept with a boy,” the narrator tells us in “Elgin,” the collection’s final story. “Big and black and fuzzy all over. We met the way you meet anyone out in the world and I brought him back to Ma’s.” The lover is “big and black,” but otherwise nondescript; he seems a bit thin to be a character in a social-realist drama. One can’t help, in these moments, but compare “Elgin” to a story like “Lockwood,” with its quiet yet intense tableaux of intimacy among queer people of color, and its insight into how society shapes and distorts that intimacy. Occasionally, such withholding of detail lends the feeling that we have been participants in one of the narrator’s many casual encounters rather than beneficiaries of his trust. Still, Washington has delivered a radiant picture of a city in flux—and of a community living simultaneously at its center and on its margins. Lot is a debut that announces a writer of uncommon talent and insight.

Ismail Muhammad is reviews editor at The Believer.