Book Beginnings quote:
Let me begin again.
I am writing to reach you---even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.
In the Hartford I grew up in and the one you grow old in, we greet one another not with "Hello" or "How are you?" but by asking, our chins jabbing the air, "What's good?" I've heard this said in other parts of the country, but in Hartford, it was pervasive... Because being knocked down was already understood, already a given, it was the skin you wore. To ask What's good? was to move, right away, to joy. It was pushing aside what was inevitable to reach the exceptional. Not great or well or wonderful, but simply good. Because good was more than enough, was a precious spark we sought and harvested of and for one another. (212-214)Summary: The narrator, Little Dog, a Vietnamese-American boy, now man, is writing a letter to his mother who speaks very little English, and cannot read any language. As the beginning quote states, he wants to reach his mother, but his words actually move him further from her as they form a barrier she cannot cross. Though born in Vietnam in a farming village, Little Dog, is now in America with his mother, and grandmother, via a refugee camp in the Philippines. The adults in his life are all traumatized by the war and the life they left behind. His father, who only makes a very small appearance in the book, is abusive to his mother before he leaves for good. His mother is traumatized and his grandmother, Lan, is schizophrenic but often steps in to save the boy from the mother's anger.
Before he could make out his mother's face, the backhand blasted the side of his head, followed by another, then more. A rain of it. A storm of mother. The boy's grandmother, hearing the screams, rushed in and, as if my instinct, knelt on all fours over the boy, making a small and feeble house with her frame (101).The letter that Little Dog writes, meanders around not in any chronological order, shining lights on events from his life and how these events shaped the boy, now man. For example, when Little Dog was fourteen he meets a boy, Trevor, while working on a tobacco farm. He instantly knows something about himself. "The boy from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work---want (94).
In the end of the book, Little Dog tells his mom that he hopes, when she is reincarnated, that she will return and somehow find and read his book. And then she will remember.
Review: Vuong is an award-winning poet and in many ways this novel, his first, reads like one long poem, with phrasing and word choices to match that form. He also is a Vietnamese-American so the story feels like it is semi-autobiographical if not completely biographical. In fact, Jia Tolentino, writing for the New Yorker, commented that the first chapter was published by the magazine as a memoir. It is very easy to imagine that this was Vuong's life and as he writes down the details it is as if he is way off looking back, almost in a dream state.
At first I loved the book. Oh, the language. What imagery.
Then I hated the book. The cruelty and the confusing way that details appeared and disappeared. And the graphic nature of the gay sex. I'm not a prude but I don't like reading about graphic sex in any form so that was a big turn off.
Just about the time I was sure I couldn't finish the book, the form of the writing changed again and this time it was poetry. I was hooked again. (Pages 153-160.) By the time we make it to the end of the book it becomes clear that Little Dog (or Vuong himself) is grappling with his life and trying to make sense of his relationship with his mother. Is the letter more for himself? I'm not sure.
Will I recommend this book to you and to other readers? I doubt it. I know very few readers who really like to "work" while they are reading and one really does have stay sharp to keep pace with all the twists and turns and back-steps. However, if you like reading poetry and want to read an immigrants story from a different angle, this is the book for you. In so many ways, just as the title implies, this book is gorgeous.