One of the best things about being back in the book biz is getting galleys, advance copies of books before publication. I like it mostly because it makes me feel cool and in the know about great books before the rest of the world finds out about them. Just another way for me to feel superior, I guess.
It is pretty wonderful, though, to come upon a stunning new novel by somebody I’ve never heard of and tell my friends to look out for it. Turning people on to excellent art, be it a book, a movie, theatre, or a band, is extremely satisfying, especially when my compadres like it too. And when they don’t … there’s no accounting for taste.
So here goes. Ocean Vuong is apparently well known as a poet. His collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds (great title, no?) won lots of big awards. One of the great embarrassments of my literary life is how devoid it is of poetry. I’ve tried, I really have. I keep thinking one day I’ll get old enough or sensitive enough to appreciate it more deeply but it hasn’t happened yet.
Vuong’s first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (this guy is a master at titles) floored me. The only word I can think of is stunning.
It’s written in the form of a letter to his illiterate mother and tells the story of his family’s life in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon. They land hard in broken-down, hollowed-out, boarded-up Hartford, Conn, a broken dream kind of place rife with racism and opioid addiction. Every day when he sets out for school his mother tells him, “Be careful. You’re already Vietnamese,” instilling a sense of being somehow illegitimate, a trespasser. Here’s his Hartford:
Where grandmothers, abuelas, abas, nanas, babas and bàngoais were kings, crowned with nothing but salvaged and improvised pride and the stubborn testament of their tongues as they waited on creaking knees and bloated feet outside Social Services for heat and oil assistance smelling of drugstore perfume and peppermint hard candies, their brown oversized Goodwill coats dusted with fresh snow as they huddled steaming down the winter block—their sons and daughters at work or in jail or overdosed or just gone, hitching cross-country on Greyhounds with dreams of kicking the habit, starting anew, but then ghosting into family legends.
His mother, Rose, who, along with his grandmother, Lan, is at the center of the book, has been broken, by the war, by an abusive husband, and by a hard life in a not-so-promised land. She beats him and loves him, a mix of violence and affection that’s both terrifying and normal.
Vuong shows us an America many of us have never seen, as when he describes the nail salon where his mother works:
The salon is also a kitchen where, in the back rooms, our women squat on the floor over huge woks that pop and sizzle over electric burners, cauldrons of pho simmer and steam up the cramped spaces with aromas of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint and cardamom mixing with formaldehyde, tuolene, acetone, Pine-Sol and bleach. A place where our folklore, rumor, tall tales and jokes from the old country are told, expanded, erupting in back rooms the size of rich people’s closets…. [A] makeshift classroom where we arrive fresh off the boat, the plane, the depths, hoping the salon would be a temporary stop—until we get on our feet or rather the jaws soften around English syllables—bend over workbooks at manicure desks, finishing homework for ESL classes that cost a quarter of our salary.
You don’t need to be told the author of this book is a poet. It’s on every page. His teenage awakening to sexuality with Trevor, a redneck farm boy is as beautiful and tragic a love story as I can remember:
He was a boy breaking out and into himself at once. That’s what I wanted—not merely the body, desirable as it was, but its will to grow into the very world that rejects its hunger. Then I wanted more, the scent, the atmosphere of him, the taste of French fries and peanut butter under the salve of his tongue. The salt around his neck from two hour drives to nowhere and a Burger King at the edge of the county, a day of tense talk with his old man, the rust from the electric razor he shared with that old man, how I would always find it on the sink in its sad plastic case, the tobacco, weed and cocaine smoke on his fingers mixed with motor oil, all of it accumulating into the afterscent of wood smoke caught and soaked in his hair, as if when he came to me, his mouth wet and wanting, he came from a place on fire, a place he could never return to.
That sad plastic case kills me.
There are difficult, horrifying scenes in this book, one in particular involving American soldiers and a macaque monkey. And, of course, the corporal violence. But there’s also beauty. And, ultimately, hope.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous publishes in June. It’s worth waiting for.