The city of Houston plays an important role in some excellent recent fiction. Examples include my Trinity colleague Andrew Porter’s superb novel In Between Days (2012), which mostly takes place in Houston, and Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, which draws on Choi’s experience as a student at Houston’s Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Bryan Washington’s riveting new collection of short stories, Lot: Stories, boldly expands on this literary interest in Houston. Washington is a 25-year-old Houston resident whose stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other prestigious outlets. Although Lot: Stories is his first book, it is receiving considerable attention, with former President Barack Obama, for instance, naming it one of his favorites for 2019. I can see why.
In the 13 stories brought together in Lot: Stories, Houston functions not as a distant backdrop but as an influential force in its own right – a volatile, often dangerous, sometimes beautiful place Washington’s characters must reckon with every day. Nearly all these characters struggle to get by, working at low-paying, dead-end jobs when not unemployed or homeless, occasionally selling drugs or turning to prostitution to survive. Despite isolated examples of one person landing an internship at NASA and another getting a free ride to Stanford University, Washington’s characters lack the resources to retreat from the city or go elsewhere.
The gritty Houston depicted in Lot: Stories isn’t the “cosmopolitan destination, filled with world-class dining, arts, hotels, shopping and nightlife,” that the Houston Chamber of Commerce website (which I’m quoting) celebrates. Or, rather, it’s that Houston – and more. In Lot: Stories, plush offices, the Galleria, Hotel ZaZa, and “sixty-acre mansions” shimmer in the background, like skyscrapers seen from afar. Washington’s characters inhabit a much rougher world populated by an astonishing array of people from different countries, many of them newly arrived immigrants trying to make sense of one another and an unfamiliar, constantly changing city where “everything was just so loose.” Everyday interactions often feel fraught with suspicion and risk, with some of the tension resulting from cultural clashes and economic pressures and some from wary strangers trying to find a common language. In this world, an undocumented Guatemalan man practices his English with a black drug dealer, “stuttering through chitchat until it tasted less like rocks.” In Lot: Stories, we hear the often-makeshift language of the streets, not “the language of money” or “the kind we hear in banks.”
Washington brilliantly captures the sights, sounds, and everyday speech of this other Houston, even its smell, “like rotten bananas and smog” on a day when the suffocating humidity and “the steady belch of traffic” make breathing a chore. In several of these stories, Washington portrays this often-hidden Houston through the eyes of an anonymous young man we first meet as teenager. His mother is black and his father Latino, making his family “too dark for the blancos, too Latin for the blacks.” In another way he doesn’t immediately fit in: He is attracted to other men, triggering the disgust of his older brother. His isolation deepens when his father leaves his mother for another woman, his sister gets married, and his brother joins the Marines. As this character (in the final story we learn his name is Nicholas) contemplates his future, he is pretty much on his own, stringing together low-paying restaurant jobs, belatedly graduating from high school only to drop out of community college after one week, and moving through a series of fleeting sexual encounters that teach him “how easy it is to walk out of a life.” When he imagines his options, he thinks, “Someone, somewhere in Houston needed a fry cook. I’d twirl signs on the street. Dance on the curb in a phone suit.”
I wish Washington had provided greater insight into Nicholas’s inner life, which might have helped me better understand his fears and his occasionally self-destructive choices. Nevertheless, even though this key character could be more fully developed, his progress from the first story to the last makes Lot: Stories in part a moving coming of age narrative, beautifully and sympathetically told. What makes the book especially powerful is how Washington shows Nicholas and some other characters developing in circumstances that aren’t always credited with allowing for growth.
Washington acknowledges that the Houston depicted in these stories includes “coke wars, turf realignments, the usual school zoning violence, and shootouts.” “A homeless guy loitering in front of the CVS” is an everyday sight. Nevertheless, even as Washington is upfront about the harshness of this world, he brings out the humanity of characters who are making their way together and sometimes reaching a better place, within the lives they are currently leading, not by virtue of somehow being rescued and whisked away to an upper-class neighborhood. Against all obstacles, some of them self-imposed, Nicholas and others are making something of their lives, and it’s is stirring to see, like the everyday street cleaning Nicholas watches one night as he sits on a curb with a friend. As Nicholas describes the scene, the street cleaners wait until the early hours right before the dawn, when the city is most quiet, and then they walk together “sweeping at all the concrete under them.” It’s a moment of unexpected beauty for Nicholas, all the “convicts,” “baseheads,” and other street cleaners “giving the city a clean slate.”
Washington isn’t naive about can be achieved in the challenging world of these stories but he isn’t despairing either, as another scene illustrates. In the concluding story Nicholas is watching his neighborhood grow further away from him, as longtime residents are selling their houses and wealthier “blancos” are moving in. On one “nothing day in the summer,” the little boy of one of his new neighbors kicks a ball towards him and, Nicholas recalls, “before I knew what was happening I was kicking it back, just me and this kid and his mom by the window,” all three of them making an unexpected connection that they enjoy. Washington characteristically does justice to the potential of this moment without, however, getting carried away. As Nicholas puts it, “for a second it was nice but after a minute I took off because there’s only so much of that [stuff] that can make sense at one time.”
One character in Lot: Stories is saving his money to pay for his immigrant parents to return home. They came to Houston because they heard that in the magnificent hospitals there “they help invisible folk.” In Lot: Stories Washington is doing something similar: helping us see people still not often encountered in works of literature, see them in all their complexity, their strengths as well as their shortcomings, what they are up against and what they can achieve.