On the first page of the text, we are confronted with a stark black-and-white illustration of an urban grid, a drone’s-eye view of the “hood” and the arteries of freeways around it. It looks almost like an X-ray, signaling that the overarching narrative presence that runs through the ensuing stories has an almost supernatural power to see, an eagle eye. He knows things man perhaps cannot, or should not, know.
Having grown up in a barrio reminiscent of the one in these pages, I recognized every smell Washington floats from every window and door. Our semi-omniscient narrator is perhaps better imagined as a young tour guide. In the story “Alief,” a kind of literary blues track about Aja, the Jamaican adulteress who initiates an affair with a white boy in her apartment complex, we see their world in cinematic detail: “Their apartments sat stacked, one on top of the other. When James left Aja’s, he took a right toward the staircase, passing four doors, three windows and the kids … stroking the fútbol, along with their mothers watching them kick it; and the Guadalajarans on the railing, who leaned, sipping their 40s, reminiscing about adolescence, all lies, mostly; and then there were the delinquents skipping school, smoking cigarettes, nodding along to Joy Division, Ice Cube and sometimes Selena.”
There’s a knowing grin of local familiarity here, yet Washington also manages to present this melancholy, jolly story in the voice of a collective “we” that renders the collection universal. These characters’ plights could take place in a Jim Carroll memoir, or in a Piri Thomas story, could occur against the backdrop of the artsy Barrio Logan neighborhood in San Diego, or San Antonio or la Loisaida (New York City’s Lower East Side), in Boston’s Chelsea or Jamaica Plains. Even these stories themselves — their stakes and resonances — need no border.
Though this is Washington’s debut, the 25-year-old Houston native has already been widely published, his essays and fiction having appeared everywhere from this paper to The New Yorker to The Paris Review and Tin House. At a time when so much writing about ethnic identity reeks of faux authority, this book throbs with lived experience. It honors at the same time that it criticizes the marginalized, living under the pressures that they are. Sometimes harsh, yes, but never condescending. Funny, yes, but not trivial.
The book takes a startlingly elegiac, wistful, poetic turn in the final story, which focuses on the 2017 hurricane that flooded the city, perhaps presaged in this collection by that prefatory image of an overhead grid. The story, “Elgin,” makes us think of the disasters yet to come as we ponder what has been lost: “The sand’s like mud on my toes, sweaty with plastic and bottles and grit, but I dig into it anyways. Until it starts to burn. I pray for my dead in that water.”