Weird to move to a city that you know nothing about; weirder still to watch a city struggle to develop its own identity under sudden national scrutiny. When I landed in the Houston area in 2014, I knew nothing about it except that where I was living was suburban and plastic, with flattened houses and wide roads on which cars drove way too fast. I lived on a “farm-to-market” road, having moved there from Tucson, Arizona, a place known for neither its farms nor markets.
I was housed in a bland apartment complex with a fancy name and a pond always dyed green. Once, on a day of bored unemployment, I scooped a turtle out of the swimming pool with a net. Houston proper was 30 miles in one direction; 30 miles in the other direction, Galveston, an island mostly known as the place where, a century ago, everyone died in a giant storm.
Destruction hangs over Houston. I knew about the hurricanes and the industrial plants pumping God knows what into the air. (The recent Deer Park fire surprises nobody who has ever lived in Houston.) I knew that, one time, oil was spilled into the Gulf and made national news. NASA seems to be constantly losing its funding. Even the baseball team, one of the worst ever, seemed on the brink of annihilation.
When I got a job at a bookstore in the heart of the city (to the degree that Houston has a “heart,” i.e., a centralized location to which everyone is drawn), the city seemed better but still disjointed, a weird mix of money and violence to the earth, a place where the cultured built ornate theaters and then had nothing very good to put in them. What did it matter anyway? Build all the theaters you want, right next to a bayou, and then wait for a flood to consume them.
Oil, NASA, hurricanes—I imagine this was what most people knew about Houston in 2014 as well. But then something shifted. In 2016, Anthony Bourdain visited the city for his series Parts Unknown and told everyone about its food and diversity, revealing that its disjointedness (Houston famously has no zoning laws) somehow allows for more movement between cultures, with restaurants and grocery stores in, say, the Indian district full of people from different backgrounds.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit, and national media filled TV screens with “resilience”; hokey or not, the images of people wading through infested water to help neighbors were powerful. Then, insanely, that terrible baseball team got suddenly great—the Astros started winning, and then kept winning, all the way through the World Series. In the fall of 2017, Houston seemed to be inescapable; a city that nobody knew anything about suddenly had millions of eyes on it.
“One of the things that’s so intriguing and attractive about Houston is you can have so many different experiences living here.” Author Bryan Washington tells me this over the phone one afternoon. Lot, his debut short story collection, came out March 19. Washington grew up in Houston, left long enough to go to grad school in New Orleans, and has set the entirety of his book in his hometown, hyper-specific to the degree that the stories are named after streets, that proper nouns are dropped in without explanation or context. Washington notes that this may be part of the appeal to readers. “It’s cool to read narratives about a place that you don’t know. And there aren’t a lot of narratives out of Houston. It’s not as visible as it should be.”
Probably Lot will be considered autobiographical, though I’m not much interested in that. Washington writes interconnected stories about a young man, son of a black mother and a Latino father, who is realizing his homosexuality in a series of hypermasculine environments. The stories are not aggressively narrative; they sprawl, much like the city itself, often feeling a little disjointed, a little “shaggy dog,” until they arrive at something powerful and then end. They may all feel too similar, the stories, were it not for Washington’s eye for the people that populate his narrator’s life—family, neighbors, lovers, etc. It’s picaresque. It also spotlights Houston’s LGBTQ community, gathered historically in Montrose, which is a neighborhood that has seen its fair share of pain yet feels vibrant and colorful and alive.
“We haven’t really gone out of our way to advertise what we have going on down here,” Washington tells me, and he has a point. Houston often defines itself in opposition to other, more “famous” Texas cities, like Austin or Dallas. (One pro-Houston slogan goes, and I’m paraphrasing, “Fuck you, Houston’s cool.”) “The vibe seems to be that everyone’s content doing their own thing, which seems to work because we’re the most diverse city in the country. Houston, and Texas, is not solely one thing. It’s not just cowboys, or conservatism, or huge amounts of racism—although there’s lots of racism in some parts of Texas,” Washington adds.
Washington is, self-admittedly, “a pretty big hype man” for Houston. “Whenever I’m not here, and now that I’ve interacted with publishing in New York, a lot of people ask questions about what’s going on in Houston. My big thing is, you know, come down or publish more people from here: then you’ll know. There are so many stories in the city.”
For such a large place, Houston has always seemed strangely absent from literary narratives. Sure, there was Larry McMurtry, but other authors do not come immediately to mind. Many great writers have lived, and continue to live, in Houston, but rarely write about it. (Maybe this has something to do with the old cliché, “write what you know,” since even residents of Houston rarely seem to know it terribly well.)
Houstonians will quibble with me about this, I know, but in my time as manager of a bookstore there, I was being constantly asked to participate in lists of “books set in Houston” and it always seemed to be the same five books. I remember James Hannaham setting horrifying parts of Delicious Foods in Houston, and Attica Locke’s Pleasantville takes place in the city’s political landscape. Anton DiSclafani and Yvonne Puig mined Houston for its odd society life. Some parts of Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy happen in Houston, but again the destruction is key (A post-apocalyptic Houston? How could you tell?, thought about 10,000 smartasses, surely, including the smartass writing this piece).
But since 2017, there has been a quiet streak of books about Houston that take on the city piecemeal. Joe Holley wrote Hurricane Season, about Hurricane Harvey and the Astros; Ben Reiter wrote Astroball, about the Astros and, obliquely, NASA (all those scientists who crunched the baseball team’s numbers, after all). Astronaut Scott Kelly wrote about the space program in Endurance. William Middleton wrote about the De Menils, Houston’s most famous family, in Double Vision, a portrait of the city’s art world. Mimi Swartz wrote about the artificial heart and the Texas Medical Center in Ticker. All nonfiction works, and all from major publishers, these books seem very Houston without ever seeming to be about Houston. The way into the city is circuitous. I have no idea how these books sold nationally; at my Houston bookstore, they sold extremely well. Forthcoming in 2019, there’s a book by Mike Freedman, King of the Mississippi, that will satirize (lovingly) the city’s business world and country clubs, and Akashic is getting around to doing Houston Noir. And hell, even Solange and Travis Scott are elevating the city with densely populated music that feels literary in detail and scope.
Lot arrives in this context. “No one’s said I’m full of shit yet,” Washington tells me, “which, I guess, is the crux of whatever you’re writing that’s hyper-local. The city and its people are appearing in a series of narratives that are getting national press.” But Washington is a true Houstonian, in that he is careful to always mention that his version of Houston is just one; nobody seems to want to speak for the city as a whole. “The only way to get a better sense of [Houston] is through more narratives to piece together. People don’t say, ‘This is the LA novel,’ because there’s this understanding that there are many different ways to live your life. But maybe because there isn’t as firm an understanding of Houston, and what’s going on in Houston, people want to latch onto one Houston narrative.” In other words, Lot might be the Houston book of the moment, but it’s certainly not the only one we need.
“It’s a specific Houston I write about,” Washington says. “The narrators and protagonists of Lot are living singular experiences. Even neighbors are wildly different from one another. Because Houston has no zoning, different people can have very different situations and live in close quarters.” To Washington’s mind, this means that people get used to each other much faster than they may in other cities. “Your neighbors are probably from a community you aren’t from. Houston is about accepting people for who they are and being open to new experiences.”
In addition to writing fiction, Washington writes personal essays and journalism, often chronicling different aspects of Houston. He has written about living between his hometown and New Orleans, about Houston’s historic Third Ward, and, of course, about Houston’s food. (“How can you live here,” he asks, “and not be into food?”) He has written about these subjects for a variety of outlets, including The Awl (“because The Awl was fucking awesome”), BuzzFeed, The Paris Review Daily, and other outlets. I ask him a question that young writers often get asked: When did he start taking writing seriously? He jokes, “When I started making money.”
Washington came somewhat late to literary fiction. “I didn’t know what that was,” he says, “but the fiction I was most drawn to interacted with language in a way where two or three or four different things were happening on the page. Multiple conflicts, multiple themes, but presented in an accessible way.” He cites something the filmmaker Edward Yang once said—that if a film is approached from a scholarly or critical perspective instead of the way a friend would tell you the story, it’s a failure. “I was so interested in my recurring narrator’s voice,” Washington says, “that I wanted to sort of play around with it. I started to wonder what that narrator was doing in the city. It was fun to do, and usually writing is really shitty for me, but this was shitty and fun.”
This gives Lot a quality that I think it shares with Denis Johnson, or Amy Hempel—the feeling that the stories are completely improvised. Washington’s recurring narrator is a young man navigating his family, friends, lovers, and discovering himself along the way, and the stories stretch out across different locations, move backward and forward in time, often without clear cause and effect. This means many of them are best on the second reading, when the tight structures reveal themselves.
Half of the pieces had been published before the book sold—published quite respectably, too, in places like One Story and The Texas Observer. When Riverhead bought it, the editorial work came down to tightening the collection, “making it more of a cohesive whole,” Washington says, “bringing out some more of each individual narrator.” (There aren’t many different narrators in the book, but they’re all potent.) “As we jumped from vantage point to vantage point, geographic hub to hub, we wanted a totally different experience from the story prior, covering more ground, both across the city and also in terms of range.” It seems to have worked: Lot was hotly anticipated, and Riverhead has also acquired Washington’s forthcoming novel, Memorial, presumably named for, you guessed it, another Houston neighborhood.
Washington remains firmly rooted in Houston. He loves going to the movies at the River Oaks Theatre and also the theater “near Ikea” (which means nothing to you, reader, I’m sure, but the geographic specificity means everything to Washington). He attends readings hosted by Inprint, Houston’s literary nonprofit, that he gushes about, fan style (“I met Zadie Smith and she was so kind,” that sort of thing). Some writers want to be part of a scene, but whenever Washington would come into the bookstore I used to manage, he seemed to want nothing more than to browse quietly; it seemed unkind to disturb him. He has his spots he loves in Houston and seems eager to keep exploring the city in life and on the page. Oh, and restaurants, of course: when I ask him where he eats, he comes up with a few places over the phone, but then later emails me with a list of more he left off. It’s always important to get things right.
Myself, it seems weird to watch Lot get this sort of response. After five years of living in Houston, I moved away in January. I was waiting for this book, and for many other Houston books, for local reasons. Unlike Washington, my feelings about the city were always more ambivalent, and I find myself not missing it—except, of course, for the bookstore, and Tacos Tierra Caliente at Alabama Ice House, and sitting on the patio at Under the Volcano, and catching the kaleidoscopic light burning through the clouds during sundown over Buffalo Bayou, and walking around Montrose to spot the weird bits of street art popping up randomly on concrete walls between houses…so, it turns out I miss many things, and maybe that’s the point: cities do not offer one experience, do not have one singular identity, and we always enter them through the smallest of things; they grow beautifully and vastly from there. Washington and Lot remind me of this. Look in the microscope to see universes.