A promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class, and sexuality with considerable aplomb.


A sensitive portrait of life among Houston's struggling working class.

At the center of this debut collection is a preternaturally observant, unnamed Afro-Latinx boy who narrates many of the stories. His philandering father eventually abandons the family, while his mother's pain at this betrayal permeates the home even after the father's disappearance. His brother, Javi, is a neighborhood drug dealer who reacts to this dysfunction with mean-spirited aggression against the narrator; his sister, Jan, distances herself from the family. Amid this domestic strife, our narrator begins to discover his sexuality through a string of encounters with other neighborhood boys. This is difficult for the narrator, whose brother is an intensely disapproving and homophobic figure. In the title story, the narrator recounts that "Javi said the only thing worse than a junkie father was a faggot son." When the narrator's sexuality isn't met with disdain, it is mostly obscured in silence, in his family's collective inability to recognize who he is. But we don't get much of a chance to know him, either: Though he is the collection's epicenter, he functions more like a reader stand-in than an actual character, providing us access to his world. The collection ripples outward from his perspective, using story to bring Houston's myriad cultures to life. In "Alief," we're introduced to Aja, a married Jamaican immigrant who begins a torrid affair with a local white boy—much to the chagrin of the Greek chorus–like neighbors. Their nosy disdain sets a tragic denouement in motion. In the collection's centerpiece, "Waugh," a sex worker named Poke and his pimp, Rod, deal with the profession's inherent dangers; rather than painting a portrait of abjection, however, Washington gives us the story of a tightknit community of marginalized people who cling to one another for safety and support. For all of this, however, there's something airy about this book. Despite its aspiration to represent a city, its prose often feels maddeningly abstract. "Elgin" begins this way: "Once, I slept with a boy. 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." This vagueness characterizes many of the stories' voices, such that they are often indistinguishable from one another. The collection sometimes feels more like a collection of modern fables than the hard-nosed, realist stories it wants to be. Still, Washington writes with an assurance that signals the arrival of an important literary voice.

A promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class, and sexuality with considerable aplomb.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-53367-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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