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‘Lot’ Offers a Fictional Look at a Vibrant, Polyglot American City

Category: Art & Culture,Books

There’s nothing overtly or pretentiously literary about his stories, but when books are mentioned you tend to want to visit the passages twice. Here he is on a young woman, a sometime prostitute, and her bookishness:

“She hit the resorts; she discovered Milton; she worked the coast; she discovered Rimbaud; she bought some heels; she discovered Babel; she took care of her skin; she discovered Rumi; she tried not to catch the clap; she discovered Borges; she caught the clap; she discovered Allende; she waited it out; she discovered Plath; she tried not to catch anything else.”

Washington cracks open a vibrant, polyglot side of Houston about which few outsiders are aware. On one level, this landscape is bleak. These stories take place amid dismal laundromats and broken-down pharmacies. There are turf wars and shootouts. Things happen near Dollar Tree stores or in Whataburger parking lots. The men and women here are extended hope only in minuscule, homeopathic amounts. Perversely, their neighborhoods are gentrifying at the same time, pricing many long-timers out.

But there is a fair amount of joy in Washington’s stories, too. (Some have previously appeared in magazines like Tin House and The New Yorker.) An underthrob of emotion beats inside them. He’s confident enough not to force the action. The stories feel loose, their cellular juices free to flow.

Living in what the critic Albert Murray called “this great hit-and-miss republic,” Washington’s characters pivot between alienation and longing. Many of them lack papers or have expiring visas or worry about getting deported over a traffic ticket.

“I haven’t seen the stars since I made it to Houston,” one recent immigrant says. She feels the city’s smog in her throat. She wants to learn not just English but “English english, the language of money,” the kind she hears in banks.

These newcomers are mostly welcome. As one character remarks, “With our not-legals shuffling in, people who don’t have time for the violence, people whose only reason for bouncing was to get away from the violence, we’ve mellowed out, found our rhythm. Slowed down. You can raise a kid in the complex. Start a garden.”

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