It seems to be a sad fact of contemporary fiction that the message or politics of a book comes secondary to its actual artistic merit. Bryan Washington’s debut, Lot, is a work that manages both categories with more competency and skill than far more experienced writers have seemed to be able to. I say ‘work’ and not ‘novel’ because it seems to straddle the line between being a novel and a collection of short stories; not falling neatly into either it seems as though the publisher has settled to call it the latter – I am not exactly convinced. Lot is very much in that tradition of North American scenes-from-life fiction, in the same vein as Williamsburg, Ohio and Mrs. Bridge and, like those, it will undoubtedly be a document used in the future to evoke the nature of life at a particular point in American history.
Where it departs from the works above is its obvious modernity and frank exploration of themes that could not have been written about at the time of the other two. It centers around Nicolás, a young boy of Latino and African American descent as he navigates the world of his native Houston, exposed to the reader. Themes of sexuality (explored and repressed), homophobia, casual racism, familial troubles, drugs (sale and use) and a great deal of loss are explored through a coming of age medium, yet one that never pretends to be naive towards his life or circumstances, nor for his neighbours. Yet this is not to say Lot is an overbearingly heavy work, nor is it a polemic. Much contemporary fiction, particularly with these themes, fall into being mere vehicles for political rants or visions; Washington resists this and, with a masterful storytelling, allows the narrative to speak for itself. This is the sign of a writer of the most intelligent kind, who can craft a story that says exactly what they want, without resorting to overt declarations or grandiose moralising.
Instead, as we follow Nicolás, his promiscuous brother Javi, his lonely mother and philandering father, and all of his cast of friends and acquaintances, linked through the neighbourhoods they occupy, we are gently invited to witness the events that prompt the formation of his identity. The novel is infused with an informal camaraderie and sensitivity to the pressures of change; it’s only flaw is that, in the clean elegance of its description, it can occasionally err into a dispassionate tone that verges on the inappropriate, even in the emotionally distant tone Washington undoubtedly intends. In handling a voice that comes from a marginalised minority background with dignity and not indignation, Washington proves that fiction does not need to choose between representation and relatability. There is much universality to be found, and an acute distilling of humanity, created through his clean, thoroughly readable prose which on occasion even verges into the lyrical and poetic.
I’m not quite sure how to class this work, or even if classification is necessary. One of its greatest strengths is how it defies easy pigeonholing into form, genre or ideology and, in doing so, marks the rise of a great new talent in contemporary literature. Regardless of what it may be, I eagerly await reading Washington’s next book, Memorial. As long as it continues his record of writing entertaining, accessible and piercing stories full of perception, I am sure that I, and the majority of readers, will be impressed; those who have already been so by Lot, once again.