By Bryan Washington
Penguin Random House, 2019
Bryan Washington’s short story collection “Lot” rotates throughout the vast sprawl of Houston to provide a moving portrait of life — especially for young black and brown boys — in an often-misunderstood city. About half the stories share an unnamed narrator who provides the reader with access to Houston and his world as he transitions from boyhood, which is complicated by an absent father, a hypermasculine brother, a sister who leaves the neighborhood, and a mother who clings to a restaurant that is no longer welcome in its gentrifying neighborhood. Over the course of the collection, the narrator begins to grapple with and discover his sexuality and attraction to men.
Under Washington’s skilled hand, the reader is transported alongside the narrator across the city’s topography over the course of decades, or even a few summer months. As in the story “610 North, 610 West,” the reader rides along with the narrator as he takes the bus most weekends with his mother to the market. “Ma and I rode through East End, past Wayland, over Main, until we hit 610 headed straight toward Airline.” Then on the way back, they ride with boxes of vegetables between their legs. “The lights downtown glowed way beyond the highway, and the traffic clogging Shepherd blinked in and out like fireflies.” As the story progresses, we are transported to a different Houston in the family car, on its way to the father’s girlfriend’s home. “East of 610 was clogged with commuters. It made the trip west more or less uneventful … The block we pulled onto was cleaner than ours. It had alleys and potholes, but there were blancos too. They tinkered with their yards. Walking dogs and checking mail. Some of them sat on their porches like gardenias.”
“Lot” encompasses the consideration and revelation of the modern Southern city and the space that exists today, the bones of the space still lingering, and the space the city could become for those who inhabit it. Washington’s setting, the city of Houston and the spaces making up that city, all belong to and affect the characters living within it — whether that space, neighborhood, or community betrays them or lends them support. The stories in the collection effectively zoom in and out of buildings, neighborhoods, and street corners providing a macro and micro view of structural impact. This is especially true in the story “Alief,” which is told collectively, in Greek chorus fashion, by the residents of a courtyard apartment complex. The chorus introduces the reader to Aja, a married Jamaican immigrant who begins a torrid affair with a local white boy. “Their apartments sat stacked, one on top of the other,” the chorus tells the reader. “When James left Aja’s, he took a right toward the staircase passing four doors, three windows, and the kids — Karl and Dante and Nigel — stroking the futbol, along with their mothers watching them kick it; and the Guadalajarans on the railing … In this way, Aja’s super-secret liaisons with the whiteboy upstairs weren’t exactly a secret at all.” From balconies, staircases, and windows the chorus sets tragedy into motion, and the reader is left grappling with the role the community played in the affair and how the very configuration of the courtyard apartment complex supports the residents’ best and worst inclinations.
“Lot” is ambitious on many fronts, and it is most successful when the characters in the stories are immersed in the city, arriving for the first time, or seeking out their place in the relentless change of urban landscapes. Washington’s prose is sharp and as layered as the multicultural Southern city the characters inhabit. In the story “South Congress,” we are introduced to a recent immigrant, Raul, staying with his aunt in “a dilapidated piss-yellow complex downtown” as he struggles to learn English and find employment. Depressed, broke, and left with few options, Raul turns to drug dealing after spotting Avery one hot afternoon. “He was watching a Jehovah’s Witness work her way up the block when the little black Corolla slid in to the lot behind her. That lot belonged to a series of new lofts. Glossy refurbished. Lawn chairs on the balconies. Raul didn’t even look at those buildings, because they made his stomach pop. They made him think of murder. A whiteboy in joggers skipped out of the garage, glancing both ways before he leaned into the Corolla.” The pair form a mentor-like relationship and traverse the city making deliveries to bums, doctors, valets, the “oil and gas crowd,” doormen, and housewives. In one story, Washington succeeds in showing Houston’s haves and have-nots, the sagging middle, and how choices are not necessarily always made out of monetary desperation, but at times out of a desperate need to find one’s place.
Designers of buildings, rooms, landscapes, neighborhoods, and cities are tasked with bringing together an endless number of connections among materials, geography, time, resources, access, people, and experiences. Bryan Washington’s “Lot” gives readers an opportunity to sit with diverse perspectives that are rarely offered space to be heard or seen. Stories, especially a collection that investigates a diverse city like Houston and the complexity of modern urbanism, offer architects and designers a new and nuanced entry point into the exploration of craft and what architecture could be — and how it can better serve the diversity of people and experiences it encounters every day.
Erin Augustine is web editor of Texas Architect.