As a reader wanders through the pages of LOT they find themselves reading stories that allow them to glance a tender yet uncompromising vista of American neighbourhoods. Bryan Washington uses the back drop of Houston, Texas to beautifully capture the different shades of being that create the canopy of humanity within a city. You can feel the connection that Washington has with his home town in each snapshot of prose.
The stories told in LOT show the queer experience and the struggles that Black and Latino communities face in modern America. From ‘looks’ that are given in the street to the way that customers and employers treat workers depending on the shade of their skin. These moments are scars on the narrative. They are part of each story’s fabric. A fact of lives that have been lived rather than an event in their own standing because that is the way real life happens.
Most of these households are one missed pay check away from homelessness. It is a grim reality that stems from the historical context that hangs over the narrative. Washington set LOT during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey showing how different communities learnt that they had no choice but to tough it out and survive.
As we read, we encounter families, lovers and loners. Characters that you usually find singing back up for commonly occuring protagonists take centre stage in this collection of stories. Their flairs and flaws are played out in equal measure. Their tales aren’t always happy ones and their futures often feel uncertain. Washington makes it clear that whatever may befall his neighbourhood, life goes on. Things don’t have the luxury of coming to a halt because a father leaves or a spouse is unfaithful.
Nicolás’ story is the one that gives the collection roots. We follow him from his childhood living in a busy household with his siblings and parents through to the disconnect he begins to feel from his family in his adulthood. As he explores his sexuality, his older brother succumbs to violence and drugs. His sister is desperate to leave and so is his dad. The only sure things in his life are the house he grew up in and his mother’s ability to keep going.
Around Nicolás, the neighbourhoods in Houston whittle out their own tales. A couple breaks up as a whole apartments block watches like it is a soap opera being played out on a television screen. Sex workers offer up their flesh to quiet the roaring from their empty stomachs. One resident flirts with having their first sexual encounter with an older woman. Another hopes that the son they never see will avoid the drug stupefied state that his own powder-sniffing customers have adopted as their fate. In one of the stories, Washington brutally illustrates the often bleak reality of seeking refuge as an immigrant and living with the fears that go along with being undocumented.
The scent of the streets and apartments bleed in to the stories. It is the vividness of the homes and work places of these characters that ground the story collection like the cement covered streets beneath the feet of these city dwellers. Houston, the place they call home, breathes like it is a living thing.
There were times when I actually cried a little while reading this book. The way Washington writes everyday interaction echoed some of the memories I have of living on a council estate. The gossip of the neighbours, the community drama and the relationship of the main character with his mother at times reminded me of when I lived with my Nan in the corner flat of a block of flats. People forget the human side of a town or city’s history. LOT doesn’t shy away from that.
Some of my favourite moments in this collection were where things stilled. I loved the moments that were just observations of people or places because so much of living is just waiting. In LOT, Bryan Washington gives us a wonderful painting of life which is beautiful and magnificent but also ugly and painful. This is something that other writers can only dream of portraying so perfectly in their work. LOT is an incredible and unmissable writer’s debut.