By Bryan Washington
c.2020, Riverhead Books
Many books come out in a year. Often, they’re provocative, absorbing or, at the very least, brain candy. But, like a hastily eaten fast-food meal, they’re quickly forgotten. No matter how worthy, memories of them will vanish as quickly as a fun size pack of M&Ms.
“Memorial,” the debut novel by acclaimed queer author Bryan Washington, is unforgettable. You’ll devour it, feasting on every page. Its flavor — tender, spicy, and poignant – will stick to your palate leaving you hungering for more.
“Memorial” is the story of Ben (short for Benson) and Mike, a queer couple, who live in Houston’s slowly gentrifying Third Ward. They’ve been together for several years, but their relationship is fraying. Ben, who is Black, is a teacher in a day care center. He grew up in a middle-class household. His parents are divorced. His father, an alcoholic, is a former local TV weatherman and occasional substitute teacher. His parents don’t accept his sexuality when he reveals that he’s HIV positive.
Mike, a chef, is Asian. His family was poor. During an argument, Mike tells Ben “you had money.”
Growing up, roaches roamed where he slept, Mike says to Ben.
Mike’s family came to Houston from Japan. When he was young, Mike’s parents returned to Japan. As “Memorial” begins, Mike’s parents have been living in Japan for years. His mother, Mitsuko, who’s divorced from his father, Eiju, has just arrived in Houston for a visit. But just as his time with his Mom is about to begin, Mike learns that Eiju, in Osaka, Japan is terminally ill. Like Ben’s folks, Mike’s parents aren’t comfortable with his sexuality. Eiju, like Ben’s Dad does to Ben, aims homophobic slurs at Mike. Mitsuko, like Ben’s Mom, knows that her son is queer, but can’t bear to talk about it.
Suddenly, Ben and Mitsuko find themselves alone, living for an undetermined amount of time, with a stranger. That would be awkward enough. On top of that, they’re an Asian hetero woman and Black, queer man thrown together in a small space. They have to share not only the bathroom, but the kitchen. Mitsuko, Ben discovers, has rearranged the kitchen. For what seems like eons, she barely speaks to him. Except to say, “so you’re Black.”
Meanwhile, Ben keeps waiting for a text from Mike, while wondering when or if they should break up.
Mike finds himself in Osaka – on the other side of the world – in close quarters with his father who he hasn’t seen in years. He hasn’t been in Japan since he was a child. He’s trying to be a caregiver for a Dad who he hasn’t connected with for ages. Eiju operates a small bar. One of his caregiving tasks, Mike learns, is to help his Dad manage the bar. He gets to know the regulars while thinking about hooking up with guys.
This is awkward on steroids!
In lesser hands, “Memorial,” would have been a jumbled mix of second-rate sit-com and soap opera. But Washington is a brilliant writer. “Brilliant” is overused. Yet, “brilliant” is the only apt word to describe Washington’s work.
Washington, 27, who lives in Houston, has won numerous awards. He is a National Book Award 5 Under 35 honoree, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Washington’s first book, “Lot,” his acclaimed 2019 short story collection, was a New York Times Notable Book and on the best-of-the-year lists of Vanity Fair, NPR, and other outlets. He has written for The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, The Paris Review, and many other publications.
“Memorial” is narrated in turns by Benson and Mike. Washington’s style is deceptively simple. Reading it feels like you’re eavesdropping on the couple’s private thoughts and conversations. From the beginning as Ben says, “Mike’s taking off for Osaka, but his mother’s flying into Houston,” you might think, “this is how people talk every day, I could write a story like this.”
Sorry, you’d hit the skids trying.
“Memorial” is one of the best books of this or any year.