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.