The City of Houston is a Labyrinth: Bryan Washington’s “Lot”

An image depicting the cover of Bryan Washington's LOT, which is itself a fire hydrant spraying spray paint

It’s funny to read other reviews of Bryan Washington’s phenomenal debut collection of short fiction, Lot, because reviewers always mention how diverse and complex Houston is in his stories, as though this is a revelation. It’s funny because that’s simply a matter of life for Houstonians and Houston writers: every other block contains an America. One block may contain every America, even. As a Houston writer, reading Lot made me question the very nature of our beloved city, question what a city truly is in this America. This questioning is something I’ve tried in my own way, and here’s someone getting due recognition for that. It’s the mark of an amazing writer to make you reevaluate the very foundation of something so dear to you, to look at the same thing and piece it together differently to form something new.

I say that as though it means something, because Houston is a constantly shifting city changed by those with competing interests. Developers create new names for neighborhoods to erase their history, to change their narratives so they can be sold to the highest bidder. Parts of Fifth Ward or Second Ward will become “EaDo.” Parts of Sixth Ward become “Washington Avenue.” Parts of Third Ward become “Museum Park.” In a way, it’s a form of fiction that Houston ‘developers’ are engaging in: erasing histories to create narratives of gringo prosperity. The converse happens, too—the Mexican Heights, anyone? Bryan Washington lists streets names and restaurants to create a Houston that absolutely exists yet doesn’t. However, there’s a difference in the purpose of each creative endeavor: one is a form of lying, the other of myth-making. To me, myths are grand fictions handed down within a culture that aim to get at something human (not an academic definition, sure, but I don’t care). There has never been a Llorona, but perhaps there’s a point where an action is so awful as to render someone inhuman in their search to rectify said action. Washington’s Lot is a gorgeous exploration of Houston’s many ideas of itself, its own myths.

One micro-example of Houston’s auto-mythology occurs in the story “Waugh.” The characters steal six-packs from the Montrose CVS; it’s a CVS where across the street, while waiting for the bus, I’ve seen a homeless man devour a pint of Blue Bell ice cream before falling asleep in the Metro stop kiosk. I hope he’s okay. In another section of the story, characters ride a rail that goes “past the churches, up Buffalo Bayou Drive, until they plowed across the Galleria’s sprawl beside the Village.” However, there’s no rail that goes anywhere near the Galleria nor a street named Buffalo Bayou Drive. Shit, I could be wrong about that, too—the city shifts every fucking day. There’s no Dowling Street anymore, either (named after a Confederate major); as of 2017 it’s Emancipation Avenue. In fact, if you walk down Emancipation today, some business and church signs still read “Dowling.”

In a way, this is both a futuristic and a historical vision of Space City. We Houstonians are a fickle people, constantly questioning each other’s credentials. I’ve worked in places where people have called to ask if we were still at a location we were at 15 years ago. I’ve been asked if I was from Houston when I referred to a certain section of 59 as 69, even though that has been in effect since 2015. The characters in “Waugh” also enjoy tzatziki from Aladdin’s. I prefer their spicy hummus. The bridge at the end of this story probably refers to the homeless encampment under 59 that has been cracked down on since the writing of the story. Houston can be a ghost of itself like that, too, each person partaking in the city’s mythology in their own way, sometimes by force.

Washington explores Houston’s mythology on other levels as well, some diving into the fantastic. In “Bayou,” TeDarus and Mix consider their life trajectories after finding a living Chupacabra in a bayou. Though that may sound ridiculous, consider that many insane things have been found in our bayous: dead bodies, human skulls, 9-foot alligators, perhaps the largest population of the rare alligator snapping turtle anywhere, etc. In finding this Chupacabra, TeDarus and Mix contemplate the fame and fortune it could bring, the people to contact to cash in on it, and who would love them if they did. TeDarus and Mix are “broke,” “flunked out of community college,” and work at a sushi joint.  TeDarus has been dumped and lives with his grandmother. On top of it all, “It was also hot as shit. Typical Houston.” They discuss showing the Chupacabra to the BBC, KUHF, or the Houston Chronicle.“[T]his is our big break. We make ourselves viral with this thing right here… Let’s say we go big,” Mix dreams aloud to T. In a sense, this is prime Hustletown mentality: the willingness to take something precious and consider its possibilities for personal wealth, both emotional and financial. Many Houstonians, I feel, have this innate sense of self-determination, that we’re all one step away from something that will deliver us from this plane. Mix represents this Houston for me. TeDarus, though, does not. I mean that in a good way.

Many of the characters in Washington’s stories don’t vibe with this willingness to struggle. At the heart of Lot is a macro exploration of Houston’s mythology. As many Houstonians as I’ve met who are proud to be living in this labyrinth, I’ve met just as many who are ready to leave without ever looking back. I think, ultimately, Lot is also about how Houston is just like any other major city in America: fast and cruel. I’ve never met anyone who would call Houston peaceful or calm. There’s a cost to that. Houston, in its vastness, is willing to leave people destitute enough that others may exploit them. The recurring main character’s mother owns a restaurant at the beginning of Lot; by the end, we see what Houston does to those who hold on to the past as characters experience gentrification, displacement, monumental loss, and the sweeping passage of time. And though Houston is a famously blue section of Texas, it’s still in Texas, it’s still in America. Washington’s characters are frequent targets of racism, homophobia, and exploitation. For all of Houston’s diversity, it’s still a city where people create enclaves that shut them off from having to change their perceptions. In a city of mirrors and wards, people are still surprised that a Black person can be Mexican. A character recounts: “Once, I asked Roberto if he liked it in Texas. He looked at me forever. Called it another place with a name.” It’s a city where “our Thais and our Mexicans and our Vietnamese. Some Guatemalans. The Cubans” can live in a single neighborhood and the “Guadalajarans… nod along to Joy Division, Ice Cube, and sometimes Selena.” But it’s also a city where you realize you can never escape yourself—hamartia, as others call it—where “it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed, and honestly, why would it. You bring yourself wherever you go. You are the one thing you can never run out on.”

In many ways, Houston is a labyrinth, a myth even to its denizens. I think it’s one reason among many why Houston is seldom recognized in America’s literary canon: there’s no one truth about Houston/Clutch City/HTX/Screwston/Bayou City/Htine/etc. to create a singular consciousness. A Houstonian will cuss you the fuck out for talking shit about Syrup City, then turn around and spit on the pavement to curse the rain, the potholes, the traffic. Washington’s Lot is an entrancing work that explores the perpetual identity crisis that is Houston’s greatest gift and curse; what we get is a smorgasbord of different approaches to being a Houstonian and reconciling that maybe, just maybe, identifying with something, whether it be familia, a space, a history, isn’t enough in this lot in life. The oxymoronic mythology of being a Houstonian is that we have more than we’ll ever need here, but we’ll still never be enough. Ay, Houston. What happens, then, is the existential questioning that inherently comes with being a marginalized person in a place so willing to discard its own magic for a slice of happiness. Que vida.

I hope America’s literary community looks at Houston’s other poets and writers. For now, from one Houstonian to another, I’m proud of this work, to be in conversation with it. This is a literary landmark for H-Town. Thank you, Bryan.