Bryan Washington lit up 2019 with “Lot,” his remarkable collection of linked short stories set in Houston.
Washington’s voice — funny, profane, angry, tender, unblinking — leapt from the page in a way that felt desirable, new and necessary.
Now comes “Memorial,” Washington’s debut novel. Good as it is, it’s not “Lot.”
That said, the novel has a lot going for it, one of the best things being that it’s by Washington. It’s fascinating to watch such a brilliant writer of short fiction expand into the longer form, going deeper into his main characters, who are at once hard to love and hard to forget.
Ben and Mike, millennials who’ve been together for four years, share an apartment in Houston’s historically Black Third Ward. Ben is Black and HIV-positive. Mike is Asian American, born in Japan and raised in Texas. Ben works at a day-care center, and Mike has cooking-related jobs.
Each man has parents so terrible — mean, alcoholic, self-absorbed, neglectful — that collectively they paint a bleak picture of their generation.
At the novel’s outset, Mitsuko, Mike’s sharp-tongued, antagonistic mom, flies back to Texas from Japan to visit Mike and Ben just as Mike announces he’s going to Japan to reunite with his long-absent father, who is dying of cancer.
This leaves Ben and Mitsuko as odd-couple roommates. It also sets up a long middle section narrated by Mike in Osaka, where his misanthropic father, Eiju, runs a small bar and restaurant that caters to Japanese regulars.
The novel is about family, with the outside world dimmed into secondary importance. Can Mike and Ben remain together, despite being raised in dysfunction? The answer remains fuzzy, but one’s family, “Memorial” argues, figures most acutely in the resolution.
This is no full-blooded gay romance beneath waving rainbow flags. While Ben and Mike seem compatible when it comes to their sex life, they quarrel a lot, sometimes viciously. Ben does not want an open relationship; Mike, who is on PrEP, sleeps with other guys anyway.
When Mike asks Ben if he thinks the relationship is working, Ben says, “I think you should just come out and say what you’re trying to say. If you think we’re done, just say it. I’ll pack … tomorrow.” A breakup appears likely, even advisable.
When Mike leaves, Ben must adjust to living instead with Mike’s mother. The two slowly bond as she cooks for Ben. They shop together for Asian ingredients. Ben has a brief affair with the older brother of one of his day-care charges.
It is hard to fathom why Mike stays with his spiteful, homophobic father in Osaka for more than a day. Mike feels a duty to support Eiju in a way that his father had not done for him. He grapples with his Japanese-ness in “this city that I didn’t know, on this island that was both mine mine mine mine mine mine mine and the furthest thing from anything I’d ever known.”
The nearly plotless story snares us through indirection to produce a pleasingly dark collage. Washington parts the clouds slightly in the final section to offer tentative hopeful signs for his ensemble. Ben bright-sides his relationship, recalling each of the few times he and Mike traded “I love yous.” Mitsuko and Mike meet Ben’s family. Amazingly, that goes well. Amid tears and revelations there appears an opening where fractures might be rehabbed, family could cohere, love could stay a while.
Claude Peck is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.
By: Bryan Washington.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 302 pages, $27.