On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
I picked up this novel (well, downloaded it onto my Kindle Paperwhite) because it was listed as a best book of June 2019. I finished it in several hours while sitting in a striped beach chair in the Atlantic, trying to stay cool from the day's searing heat, slathered with 30 SPF sunscreen. I settled in while a brown-spotted seagull trotted close to my feet making crooked footprints in the sand and a green-headed fly made lunch of the sunburnt and callused skin on my right heel. But the water was clear and cool around my legs as the tide rolled in.
I started reading, recognizing a place from my past: descriptions of a drive to a mall off I-91 to buy Godiva chocolates, a market on Franklin Avenue with a littered stoop--a place I sometimes work, Hartford, Connecticut. The author, Ocean Vuong, writes:
In my Hartford, where the insurance companies that made us the big city had all moved out .... our best minds sucked up by New York or Boston ... Where we still sell Whalers jerseys at the bus station twenty years after the Whalers ditched this place ... Hartford of Mark Twain, Wallace Stevens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, writers whose vast imaginations failed to hold, in either flesh or ink, bodies like ours. ... Where the Bushnell theatre, the Wadsworth Atheneum (which held the first retrospective on Picasso in America), were visited mostly by outsiders from the suburbs ... before driving home to sleepy towns flush with Pier 1 Imports and Whole Foods. Hartford, where we stayed when other Vietnamese immigrants [like us] fled to California or Houston.
It is the second novel in a month that I've read chronicling the life of immigrants or diaspora living at or near poverty level in America. It read like a memoir rather than a novel: descriptions of streets and places that really exist: Hartford, Wyllys Street, Main Street, Prospect Avenue with a Baptist church inhabited by a loving, inviting congregation belting out hymns. In poetic prose, the narrator spills out the story of a young boy's journey to manhood like the ocean waves spilling out in from of me. He describes the typical battles of childhood to adolescence made more difficult by being an immigrant--prejudice about his fragmented English and his "yellow" skin--and something stirring within himself that the bullies have already recognized, with harsh language painted in red graffiti across his front door that his Vietnamese mother cannot read. The young man's acknowledgment of his sexuality and immediate acceptance of it is included in a letter to his mother he thinks she'll never likely read. His first love, Trevor, struggles with what they are feeling and trying out and what it all means (these scenes are very descriptive). Trevor's grandfather runs the tobacco farm they both work on--Trevor to escape an often abusive, alcoholic father who watches Patriot's games on TV in their trailer home, with a Dean Koontz's book at his side.
in the narrator's beleaguered, but beloved hometown called Hartford, Connecticut, he describes the strong women he lives with: Grandma Lan (Lily) who had to name herself and she chose a flower (who gave him the nickname, Little Dog); his mother, Rose, who his grandmother named for another favorite flower, and her sister, Mai. He describes his mother's slide into depression and his grandmother's PTSD-induced psychosis from the war after Fourth of July fireworks. He describes his mother's failing health from the acetone-filled nail salon, her back pain stemming from days of huddling over patron's nails while painting them daring colors of burgundy and magenta.
Little Dog does what he can to help the family--he takes a $9 per hour job at a tobacco farm, riding his bike the long hour it takes to arrive there from his one-bedroom Hartford apartment (could that farm have been in ... Bloomfield or Windsor ...? I wonder as I read on and as another green-headed fly bites me). There are forays to a farmhouse in Virginia, descriptions of killing fields like war and opioids in a Connecticut park. During the Vietnam War, his Grandma Lan confessed to Little Dog the "whoring" she was forced to do to put food on the table; there were some especially dark descriptions of the macabre ritual of eating the brains of a particular species of monkey in order to strengthen libido and manhood of certain soldiers in Vietnam.
The author writes in no apparent order, so it's like a streaming of consciousness--memories coming alive at the moment he thinks of them and puts pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). There is ample animal/insect imagery besides the monkey: buffaloes on the Disney Channel that follow one another off a cliff, a stuffed deer head at a rest stop in Virginia that his mom believes is stuck in death (or life) forever, and this thought distresses her. He talks about a colony of ants staining the pavement dark and colonies of orange monarch butterflies that will fly south from southern Canada and the United States to central Mexico from September to November. He talks of being different--yellow and gay and being bullied about it. He speaks of the frustration of a language barrier, when even he who will become college-educated and interested in writing can't help his mom purchase oxtail at the grocery store's butcher shop. Sadly, there are mothers who hit their sons out of frustration; happily there are grandfathers who continue being grandfathers when they really aren't.
Just last week, when I was in Hartford for work, which is pretty infrequent because I work in Massachusetts predominantly, after having lunch at Carbones on Franklin Avenue (finishing lunch up with flaming Bocce Balls), I drive past the Gold Building which I would often walk by outside and sneak a peek at the length of my skirt and to see if my hair looked okay when I was young, in which I had worked for an insurance agency just out of college, which had a bank where I held my first checking account. I was forgiving of those few weed-filled and chain-linked lots I passed that once held families of immigrants in brick railroad flats, just like I had read about; I was filled with pride to pass Retreat Avenue and Seymour Street and a glimpse of the hospital where my two sons were born, to thoughts of our little Ensign-Bickford starter home in Simsbury, and the fields of tobacco in the north-end of town like the tobacco fields in the novel, onto Interstate 84 which would lead me to my first apartment in Ellington, Connecticut, where there are cows one could draw or color in magenta and pink hues like Little Dog did at school, to Rockville where I was married in a glorious church with vaulted wooden ceilings. And then I sighed for every bittersweet memory of being young and starting out. I continued home to Massachusetts and my own town and its long barrier beach with Rosa Rugosa in fragrant, fuschia and white colored blooms. I anticipated the prospect of new memories of my own children being young and starting out.
When my son and his girlfriend join my husband and me at the beach I put the novel down that had me brimming with memories of the past and I concentrate on my family and the present.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous ... the title is misleading, but you'll see what it means when you delve into this gorgeous, sensual, heart-wrenching debut novel of Ocean Vuong, first a published poet. This is a Penguin Random House imprint.