There are meals galore in Bryan Washington’s latest novel: those that Cam and his lover Kai cook for one another; those that Cam’s childhood friend TJ cooks for his Thai boyfriend’s cousins; those that TJ’s Vietnamese father Jin cooked for his neighbors every weekend; and those that the now bulimic Cam vomits up after Kai’s murder.
There is also sex galore. Each of the novel’s three narrators — Cam, Kai and TJ — engages in “random hook-ups,” with Cam in particular using them to dull his pain. Working in a Houston gay bar, he takes customers to a back-room every few hours. His partners include “delivery guys and lawyers and dry cleaners and architects and engineers and college kids and kindergarten teachers and graphic designers and real estate agents and salesmen and house husbands and professors.” It’s no surprise when he says after an anonymous encounter that “niceness for the sake of niceness doesn’t fit into our transaction.”
There is no overarching narrative; instead, Cam, Kai and TJ tell their own stories of youth and early adulthood and, above all, their interconnections. They share many of the same concerns and speak in much the same voice, with Cam’s the most brutal and TJ’s the most appealing. If Washington offers any hope for these desperate lives, it lies in Cam’s realization: “It takes all of these people to make one person’s life, okay. One person can’t do it for you by themselves… It’s our responsibility to take care of each other.”
Family Meal focuses on the web of relationships among a group of predominantly black, urban gay men. Its style is spare to the point of starkness, almost entirely devoid of adjectives and relative clauses. Eschewing literary flourish, the stripped-down prose is perfectly suited to the characters’ sex-and-drug-fueled lives.
It is less accomplished than Washington’s previous novel, Memorial. There are too many short, discrete passages; at times, a one-line sentence stands alone on the page, giving the words a weight they don’t merit. In a book with so little descriptive prose, there are literally hundreds of references to skin color, which become wearing, especially when, Kai’s murder apart, the different races live in harmony. But these flaws are transcended by the novel’s honesty, fluency and fearlessness. With its multicultural characters and gritty authenticity, Family Meal might best be likened to a mixture of fusion cooking and street food.
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