May 31 marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, and the best present we could possibly receive is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” The connection between the Good Gray Poet and this young Vietnamese immigrant may seem tenuous, but with his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of the author of “Leaves of Grass.” Emerging from the most marginalized circumstances, he has produced a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal.
The fact that we can hear Vuong’s voice today in America stems from a function of tragedy and serendipity. As Vuong explains in his 2016 poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” his grandfather was a U.S. soldier who found a farm girl in Vietnam. “Thus my mother exists,” he writes. “Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”
That willingness to solve the equation of his own existence, no matter what its components, is a hallmark of Vuong’s entrancing new book, which is labeled a novel but draws heavily on the events of his life. He was born in Saigon in 1988, and two years later was brought to the United States where he and his relatives lived in poverty in Hartford, Conn. None of them could speak English. Vuong didn’t learn to read until he was 11, but before he was 30, his poetry had won a slate of major honors, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, and been published in Poetry magazine, the New Yorker and other prestigious journals. Now he teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In summary, his is the archetypal immigrant story on rocket fuel.
But the story he tells in “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is far more complex and harrowing. The narrator, nicknamed Little Dog, looks back as a way of embracing his past and reaching beyond it. The novel is framed as a candid letter to his mother, an abusive, volcanic woman who cannot read. If there’s an element of futility in this project, there’s also a larger element of hope.
“I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours,” Little Dog says. “Which is to say, I am writing as a son.” In that role, he remembers when his mother slapped him, threw a teapot at him and even threatened him with a knife. But just as clearly, he remembers enjoying moments of real affection and listening to her captivating stories. “You once told me that memory is a choice,” he writes. “But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.”
That suggests something about how this narrative flows — rushing from one anecdote to another, swirling past and present, constantly swelling with poignancy. Vuong also displays a fondness for haunting paradoxes, such as, “Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.” And those lyrical reflections are counterbalanced by searing recollections, as when Little Dog overhears his mother at the sink whispering to herself: “I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.” The distinction is not so clear to him. “A monster is not such a terrible thing to be,” he thinks. “From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.”
With that capacious sympathy, Little Dog considers the humiliations and abuses his mother suffered as a poor, disposable woman in one of the countless nail salons spread across the country — “a place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones — with or without citizenship — aching, toxic, and underpaid.” And from his grandmother, he learns of even more traumatic experiences the women in his family endured back in Vietnam. “I didn’t know that the war was still inside you,” he confesses, “that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves — but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.”
A major section of the novel takes place outside his mother’s orbit, when Little Dog is a teenager. School is an arena of bullies and bafflement, racism and rejection, but he finds an unexpected cloister of freedom working on a tobacco farm during the summer. There he falls in love with the owner’s grandson, Trevor, a high school junior who can find no way to reconcile his redneck wildness with his own tenderness and homosexuality. Vuong’s explicit descriptions of their erotic adventures in the barn only highlight the depth of Trevor’s denial.
But that’s not the only challenge hanging over their clandestine relationship.
Vuong ties the private terrors of supposedly inconsequential people to the larger forces pulsing through America. With his fondness for getting high, Trevor is an easy mark for a drug industry determined to pump OxyContin into the veins of as many people as possible. At times, the tension between Little Dog’s passion and his concern seems to explode the very structure of traditional narrative, and the pages break apart into the lines of an evocative prose poem — not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning. (The audiobook version, read in Vuong’s haunting, plaintive voice, is almost too painful to endure. Listen to a sample at wapo.st/vuongreads.)
As the novel moves along, its structure grows more fluid even as Little Dog draws closer to his mother. Kindness and wisdom, always flickering through these pages, begin to accrue more thickly. The healing that finally arrives is fraught with pain and paradox, but no less welcome and remarkable.
“You have a bellyful of English,” Little Dog’s mother tells him. “You have to use it.”
He has. He has.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.On Thursday, June 6, at 7 p.m., Ocean Vuong will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press. 256 pp. $26