Family Meal 
by Bryan Washington.
Atlantic, 306 pp., £17.99, October 2023, 978 1 83895 444 4
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Early​ in Bryan Washington’s novel Family Meal, Cam, a young Black man, gets a notification on his phone while walking home from his bar job. A stranger has shared his location on a hook-up app; there’s no photograph of his face, just a dick pic, but Cam eventually finds him, sitting on a park bench in the dark. The guy asks if he has a condom, but Cam tells him not to worry. When the stranger asks if he’s sure, Cam snaps: ‘Are you a fucking doctor?’ They have sex and go their separate ways.

Cam is in mourning. His boyfriend, Kai, died a couple of months ago and life has become a succession of coping strategies: pills to make it through his bar shifts; drinks lifted from behind the counter; anonymous sex. ‘I fucked around before I met Kai,’ he tells us, ‘hooking up here and there, but at some point after he died here and there became everywhere, all the time.’ After Kai’s death, Cam returned to Houston, his home town, but instead of seeing family and friends, he’s spending all his spare time with delivery drivers, lawyers, dry-cleaners, architects, engineers and kindergarten teachers. ‘One time, I fuck a guy on the bathroom floor in Kroger while his wife shops for crawfish, haggling with the cashier while I stretch her husband out.’

Cam’s encounters with these men are formulaic: a rushed greeting, perfunctory sex, a sprint to the finish, ‘before we nod and leave, never once exchanging our names’. It’s as if brief physical intimacy, repeated enough times and with enough people, could substitute for genuine connection. We don’t yet know what happened to Kai, but in recurrent dreams and ghostly visitations Cam watches him die a hundred different ways: he chokes on a fish bone, falls asleep under anaesthesia, overdoses on pills, hangs himself. He dies in ‘every conceivable way’. None of these ways, Cam tells himself, has anything in common with any other way, ‘and none of it has anything to do with me.’

Cam is wary when a friend he hasn’t seen in a decade turns up at the gay bar where he works. TJ is a foot shorter than Cam, his cheeks ‘still full of the baby fat that never went away’. They grew up together – TJ’s parents took Cam in after his own parents died in a car crash – and Cam still remembers the confusion of ‘his breath on my face’, the hours spent folding croissants and pastries together at the family bakery. ‘Does showing up at the bar mean you’re finally out?’ Cam asks. ‘I was always out,’ TJ replies. They could be old friends, estranged siblings or exes. Washington allows for all three.

The novel is divided into several parts, narrated in turn by Cam, TJ and Kai (speaking posthumously). We move back and forth in time through anecdotes and personal histories; Washington’s structure requires the reader to piece together a coherent account of the novel’s events. This is not always easy when the characters’ backstories span several decades and are revealed through small, unexpected disclosures. The cause of the rift between Cam and TJ emerges in casual asides and sarcastic put-downs. If Cam thinks that TJ is wasting his life in Houston ‘fucking straight boys’ and ‘closet cases’, then TJ thinks that Cam abandoned the family when he got his ‘fancy finance degree’ and moved to LA. We learn that TJ’s father caught him and Cam fooling around when they were teens, and that, while nothing was said, a discomfort formed and lingered between father and son.

Queer characters negotiating tricky family dynamics is a recurring theme in Washington’s work. In Lot, a collection of short fiction published in 2019, Nicolás (who narrates several of the stories) writes a letter to his older brother hinting that he might be gay. He gets no response, so decides to address the issue in person. ‘I told him I’d been sleeping with boys … how I’d tried it with Cristina and Maribel, with LaShon and her sister; and how it hadn’t worked, with any of them.’ His brother slaps him to the floor of their shared bedroom, and that’s that. In Memorial (2020), Washington’s first novel, Benson describes his father walking in while he was being jerked off by another boy: the old man coughs, backs out of the bedroom and then drinks his way through two six-packs of beer on the sofa. It’s never discussed.

Washington adopts the first person for his gay protagonists, but we get little sense of their emotional lives. They aren’t inclined to self-scrutiny. ‘We fell out of touch,’ Cam says, when asked about his estrangement from TJ. ‘The end.’ Jokes and gestures stand in for confessional outpourings, occasionally revealing an unacknowledged depth of feeling. But elsewhere the laconic dialogue leaves the reader shut out.

Kai’s section of the novel deals with his memories of growing up in Louisiana and his own feelings of filial guilt and resentment. He gets a scholarship to study Japanese at UCLA, after which he spends a lot of his time in Osaka. (‘If you’re Black and you’re a translator then people look at you funny. They get this fold right over their nose … If you tell these people that you translate Japanese, their folds intensify.’) Kai’s sister wants him to share more of the responsibility of caring for their ageing mother, but when he visits Baton Rouge, he feels he’s disintegrating. He no longer fits in the place he grew up. He’s brought a suitcase full of ‘too-short shorts and oversize sweaters’, and people stare or shout slurs when he goes out to buy cigarettes.

The desire to escape the bear trap of the family is the central crisis in Washington’s work. Kai’s sister doesn’t speak about his sexuality, or why it might prevent him from moving back. Instead, when he goes home to visit, they prepare ‘enough food for twenty people’ and spend the evening cleaning the dishes silently. ‘I washed the greens. I massaged the meat. I cooked the rice and deveined the shrimp,’ Kai says. It’s another strategy of avoidance.

Washington is known for his food writing (he’s had columns in the New Yorker and the New York Times). Food is a preoccupation in his fiction, too, but he doesn’t immerse his readers in its textures or flavours. Instead, food serves as an emotional shorthand. In Memorial, one character lists the 41 dishes he has cooked for his father – everything from grilled asparagus to nabeyaki udon – none of which met with his approval. Food is labour, even if it’s a labour of love. In an interview with the New Yorker, Washington said that he’s ‘interested in questions surrounding pleasure, desire, labour, debt, need and how folks come together (or don’t) … Food in my fiction is a catalyst that’s useful only for what narrative possibility it yields.’ The problem with this is that the ‘narrative possibilities’ are usually generic and predictable – food as seduction, escapism, a peace offering, an attempt to win approval – while the possible particularities of sensation and emotion are discarded.

Washington divides his time between Houston and Osaka, and both settings feature heavily in his novels and stories. For characters such as Kai, Japan represents an escape from the ‘vortex’ of home. Houston’s associations are more inchoate, more intimate. In Family Meal, Houston is a vibrant sprawl of communities and food cultures under threat from hurricanes, the pandemic and the endless rise in property values. Local businesses – the taquería, the Korean sauna, the restaurants with no menus and no alcohol – are being pushed out to make room for high-rise buildings and bland sports bars. An encroaching crowd, mostly white, mostly young, has been changing the soundscape, too: boys shouting from moving cars, girls shrieking, ‘wasted and laughing’, as they stumble through the streets drinking beer from red Solo cups. They move in groups, as in a zombie movie – a ‘gaggle of whitewomen’, ‘packs of white queers’ – always intoxicated, seemingly lost.

This collective presentation of whiteness becomes monotonous, which may have been Washington’s intention, but the result is less successful than in his earlier books, where he focused on the specific ways that individuals (such as the well-meaning NGO worker in Lot) use their whiteness to their advantage. In Family Meal, Houston locals respond to the new arrivals with a weary tolerance, but the changes have consequences. TJ – whose parents are Black and Korean – and Cam suddenly find themselves mistaken for service workers or viewed as threats. A white woman bangs on the window of TJ’s car to ask whether he’s her Lyft driver. Another woman ‘yelps’ at the sight of Cam, then apologises.

When Cam learns that the gay bar will shut because of pressure from the leaseholder, his compulsive behaviour escalates. At the closing-down party, high on a cocktail of drugs, he pushes a colleague then takes off in a panic. He stops outside a small pharmacy, struggling to catch his breath. The attendant, a Black woman, approaches and ‘asks if I’m all right, and I tell her that I think I need help and she asks if I’m safe and I tell her I don’t know and she exhales and slows her voice and asks if there’s someone she can call’. Which is what you want to happen. But then the manager arrives, ‘a whiteman with a name tag’, who shouts at Cam and threatens to call the police, though his colleague tells him he mustn’t. We understand what she understands. We’re in on the same horrible joke: Cam, a Black man, is having a panic attack in public and if the police are called, his life may be in danger.

It’s at this point in the novel that we learn how Kai died. He and Cam had gone out dancing to celebrate Kai’s latest translation. At the end of the night, Kai suggests they get a cab back to the apartment – they’re both ‘flying high’ – but Cam insists he can drive. A cop pulls them over to check their documents, and Kai can’t stop giggling; he reaches, without thinking, for the glove compartment to find his ID and Cam hears three cracks.

In his essay ‘A Brief History of Driving While Black’, Washington recounts the many times he’s been stopped by cops in Texas and Louisiana without reasonable cause: ‘She ran my plates. She ran my driver’s licence. She verified my student ID, comparing the photos. She asked for my insurance, and if I was leasing the car, and where was I leasing it from.’ In his early fiction, the police often appear as incompetent outsiders: ‘Officer Ramirez, Officer Brown, Officer Onlyamonthontheforce’, he quips in the story ‘Alief’. In Family Meal, the cop who shoots Kai is almost featureless, just a voice asking for a licence, asking Cam to step out of the car. Unlike elsewhere in the novel, the invocation of monolithic whiteness is effective here: an arbitrary force with devastating consequences.

Washington tends to rehash the same scenarios and concerns again and again. Across his novels and stories, there are a host of dead fathers, estranged siblings, family-run businesses struggling to stay open, interracial couples struggling to stay together, sassy female colleagues (Shanté, Fati, Ximena) doling out practical advice. In ‘Server’, a novella-length short story published in the New Yorker last summer, a young Black man based between Houston and Osaka grieves the loss of his boyfriend, who makes ghost-like appearances at night (in this case, as an avatar in an old video game). This couple, too, gets pulled over by a cop. Washington may seek resolution for his characters in the concluding pages of Family Meal – Cam enters rehab; TJ develops a crush on a new barista – but the larger questions that drive his fiction remain unanswered.

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