Book Review: The Highs and Lows of Houston Life in Lot: Stories

Bryan Washington depicts residents with warmth and discernment as they live, fight, work, and love in a city that can be both a home and a challenge

The Highs and Lows of Houston Life in <i>Lot: Stories</i>

The idea of a city, a location, being a character in a narrative is such well-trod territory that it feels almost criminal to apply it to Lot: Stories. But what else is Houston in Bryan Washington's debut collection but a central member of the cast of these tales? The city never outshines its citizens, but it's never less than integral to their lives and choices – mundane, tragic, comic, or otherwise.

Besides the city at large, it's a rich neighborhood that peoples Lot. Every other story in the collection focuses on a single black and Latinx family and the youngest son of the family especially (a strong structure that feels like an especially generous on-ramp to readers more familiar with novel-length fiction), but alongside him are a cavalcade of teens and parents, drug dealers, restaurant workers, sex workers, parents, lovers, and friends. Masculinity's demands and foibles persist in them. Queerness runs like a gold seam through them. Gentrification, income inequality, the creep of whiteness into communities of color – they don't have top billing in every narrative but they're always there, haunting Lot's denizens. Washington's gaze descends on each character with profound warmth and discernment, and there's not an individual you aren't left wanting to know just a little more about. He captures the rhythms of speech and makes it look easy, his narration is thoughtful and spare, then he swings around and drops a perfect phrase that is so big in its sentiment and efficient in its wording and achingly true that it clobbers you. ("This is how easy it is to walk out of a life.")

The stories in Lot are largely traditional in their telling and style – first- or third-person realism that captures the act of ordinary living with a keen eye – but two are more adventurous with form and subject matter. The book's second piece, "Alief," turns the occupants of an apartment complex and the surrounding neighbors into a Greek chorus chronicling an ill-fated affair. While so many of the stories in Lot feel immediate in the way they capture living in a single moment in time, "Alief" manages to feel both current and mythic in the way it unveils how a community moves around a scandal: observing, fanning the flames, cleaning up the damage. And then midway through the collection is "Bayou," which right in its first sentence tells you it is about two friends finding a chupacabra. It's a premise you keep expecting Washington to undercut or use as a launch point for something more grounded, but he ends up honoring it, preserving the possibility of something small and strange and magical surviving in a world that asks a lot of you. Maybe that hope isn't a fantastical form in the rest of the collection, but Washington suggests its presence in all his protagonists as they live and fight and work and love in a city that can be both a home and a challenge.

Lot: Stories

By Bryan Washington
Riverhead Books, 240 pp., $25

Bryan Washington will appear with authors Rion Amilcar Scott (The World Doesn’t Require You) and Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Sabrina & Corina) in the session "Writing From a Place: At the Crossroads of Geography, Identity, and Art" Sun., 1:15pm, in Capitol Ext. Rm. E1.106.

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