Ocean Vuong's debut novel, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," illuminates lives that at first glance might seem anything but gorgeous: those of people on the edges of society, struggling with mental illness, PTSD, various forms of trauma and addiction. But in Vuong's lyrical prose, beauty and pain are intertwined in the memories of the narrator, a young Vietnamese refugee in America called Little Dog.
The book is framed as a letter from Little Dog to his mother as he tries to understand their complicated relationship. Even his nickname is a sign of something at first ugly but actually loving because it reflects his mother's attempts to protect him: "Because evil spirits, roaming the land for healthy, beautiful children, would hear the name of something hideous and ghastly being called in for supper and pass over the house, sparing the child."
In dreamlike sequences Little Dog describes his early life with his mother, Rose, and his grandmother, Lan, as they travel together from Vietnam to Hartford, Conn. Little Dog appreciates his mother's love, shown by her hard work to support him and his grandmother. Rose labors first as a sex worker in Vietnam and then as a nail salon worker in the U.S., where her hands become scarred from constant exposure to harsh chemicals.
Little Dog recognizes, too, his mother's abuse, caused by her schizophrenia and her PTSD as a survivor of war. "The first time you hit me, I must have been four," Little Dog remembers. Rose's anger could be triggered by anything — his attempts to teach her English or because he reaches for the television remote or because he is simply within reach.
As Little Dog grows into a shy, uncertain teenager, he finds another kind of love with a white boy whom he meets one summer while working on a farm. The two teenagers bond over video games, hard work and the shared discovery of their queerness. For moments, they experience joy together, which in Vuong's novel is also a kind of peace, a respite from the war that rages within all his characters.
Poverty in America is itself a kind of war, a theme that Vuong mines in all his characters lives, Vietnamese and white. He does not flinch from detailing the long-term effects of grueling physical labor and diminishing options on the body and soul.
Despite Little Dog's sorrows, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" is ultimately a celebration of the love, however flawed and fleeting, that threads all the characters' lives together. The novel is a stunning debut. Vuong is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Night Sky With Exit Wounds," winner of the Whiting Award and T.S. Eliot Prize.
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of a short story collection, "Useful Phrases for Immigrants."
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
By: Ocean Vuong.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 246 pages, $26.
Event: 7 p.m. June 14, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.