James Baldwin was once asked, “When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, homosexual. You must have said to yourself: Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”
“No, I thought I hit the jackpot,” Baldwin gamely replied. “It was so outrageous, you could not go any further, you know. So you had to find a way to use it.”
Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, in his semi-autobiographical debut novel, manages to go further. The young gay narrator of the hotly awaited “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” contends with deep poverty, a rapidly escalating opioid crisis, racial and homophobic taunting, a physically abusive mother (a victim of marital abuse herself), and a kindly grandmother suffering from schizophrenia, PTSD, and, ultimately, bone cancer.
As jackpots go, it threatens to overflow. (And now and then
But the UMass-Amherst professor’s poetic, experimental novel also bristles with feeling and demonstrates plenty of writing talent, as he places readers in a corner of urban America — Hartford, Conn., Vuong’s hometown — where almost all social contracts lie in tatters. This traumatized family may have escaped war-ravaged Vietnam, although the place where they landed isn’t exactly a sanctuary.
Little Dog — as his mother and grandmother nickname him — is the first in his family to go to college. There, he earns a degree in English. The novel takes the form of a long letter to his illiterate mother. “[T]he very impossibility of your reading this,” he notes, “is all that makes my telling it possible.” In feverish prose, Vuong recounts the family’s travails and evokes the widening cultural gap between Little Dog and the women who raised him.
Little Dog, like Vuong, is a writer, and he’s well aware that, in describing his mother on the page, he’s able to “change, embellish and preserve [her] all at once.” He’s also receptive to the cracked wisdom his grandmother can offer him. “I came to know,” he says, “that madness can sometimes lead to discovery, that the mind, fractured and short-wired, is not entirely wrong.”
Most of the action unfolds in the early 2000s, when Little Dog is entering his teens. “Action,” however, is a bit of a misnomer. This is a novel propelled by the rhythms of its prose and the associative logic of its narrator’s memories rather than any plot machinations. Central to the book are Little Dog’s visceral sense of hurt (“I was a gaping wound in the middle of America,” he tells his mother, “and you were inside me asking, Where are we? Where are we, baby?”) and the redemptive power of his affair with an older teenage boy who’s his co-worker on a tobacco farm outside Hartford.
Vuong’s descriptive gifts can be impressive. When Little Dog hears the “not uncommon” sound of gunfire in his neighborhood, it’s “piercing yet somehow more mundane than I imagined, like little league home runs cracked one after another out of the night’s park.” When he eavesdrops on a father playing with his kids in a nearby backyard, he hears “[n]ot a game, exactly, but an embodiment of vague excitement, the kind known only to very young children, where delight rushes through them simply by running across an empty field not yet recognized as a tiny backyard in a [lousy] part of town. From their shrill cries, they were no older than six, an age where one could be ecstatic just by moving. They were little bells struck to singing, it seems, by air itself.”
Elsewhere, an overly exuberant Vuong presses too hard, and On a train ride from New York City to Hartford, the college-aged Little Dog gazes at “lots stacked with shelled cars and farm tractors shot through with rust, backyards and their repeating piles of rotted firewood, the oily mounds gone mushy, pushed through the crisscross of chain-link fences, then hardened in place.”
Cut that sentence at “rotted firewood,” and you’d have a passage that works, rather than a head-scratcher. (How does firewood, no matter how rotten, get sieved through chain-link fencing?)
Likewise Vuong’s observational about the nature of a difficult life at times could benefit from more restraint. Sometimes he’s right on target: “We sidestep ourselves in order to move forward.” At other moments, less so: “They say everything happens for a reason — but I can’t tell you why the dead always outnumber the living.”
The meaning of the book’s title — lifted from a poem in Vuong’s 2016 collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” — manifests itself in a sentence that sharply sums up Little Dog’s fragile, imperiled sense of being: “To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
With “Briefly Gorgeous,” Vuong delivers an overall striking portrait of a boy growing up in a world in ruins, before making an escape from it that leaves him profoundly uneasy.
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press, 246 pp., $26
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Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.