Ben Singleton

Ben Singleton.

Bryan Washington’s debut collection of short stories, “Lot,” is arguably just as much about Houston as the variety of characters that populate this book.

All of the stories take place in the city and Washington writes with a Joycean familiarity of his hometown that is captivating. Poverty, romance, not-so-romantic flings and the struggles and effects of racism and homophobia are unflinchingly told in this collection by the various residents of Houston.

Washington’s greatest gift is his sense of timing. Words and phrases are often delivered like a punch in the gut, such as the devastating last sentence of the story “Wayside.” His pacing is masterful and while each story can function as a standalone narrative, characters often recur from one story to the next.

Washington has a knack for chronicling the surreal in “Bayou,” when a character finds a chupacabra that is in a Schrodinger’s cat-like state of death and life. This fantastical turn is a departure from the realism that pervaded the rest of the book.

The prose in “Lot” is the minimalism that seems to be dominant in contemporary American literary fiction. Basic is often better and simple sentences from the gut is the surest way to avoid mawkishness. The downsides to this technique is that it’s often harder for the reader to take joy in the words themselves and the result is Washington’s narrators often telling their stories with one-note apathy. The tight-lipped minimalism of “Lot” evinces one dominant mood — a gritty hopelessness. The directness of Washington’s prose serves as a vehicle for conveying his characters’ resigned pessimism.

All of the stories are in first person and the tone doesn’t change much in the book. Washington succeeds in showing the tribulations of those who occupy the lower rungs of society. But, be warned, this book doesn’t show much else.

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