Ben and Mike have been a couple for about four years, but they’re both wondering how much longer it will last. What started as a promising romance has run down to the point that just about the only time they talk, or have sex, is when they fight. But neither of them wants to ask difficult questions.
Not that either young man grew up with great role models for relationships. Both come from divorce-fractured homes and are estranged from their families. Until, that is, Mike’s parents make separate dramatic returns to their son’s life that leave his relationship with Ben hanging in the balance.
That’s just the beginning of Memorial, the engaging and beautifully crafted new novel by Bryan Washington. In interviews, Washington has called it a “gay slacker dramedy,” and it’s that, but a lot more as well, including a portrait of the multiple shapes and meanings of family.
This is the second book from Washington, who is 27. His story collection, Lot, published last year, landed him on the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list and was listed among former President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2019.
The first half of Memorial is written from Ben’s point of view, the second from Mike’s. Ben’s half is set in Houston, where the pair live (and where Washington was raised). They’re an interracial couple — Ben is Black, and Mike emigrated from Japan with his parents as a kid — in a multicultural city: “Whole swaths of Houston look like chunks of other countries. There are potholes beside gourmet bakeries beside taquerias beside noodle bars, copied and pasted onto a graying landscape.”
They share an apartment in the Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood that is gentrifying rapidly. Ben wryly notes the influx of college students and professors: “The black folks who’ve lived here for decades let them do it, happy for the scientific fact that white kids keep the cops away.”
Ben grew up in a different neighborhood, in a middle-class home with his sister, mother and father, a TV meteorologist. His father’s alcoholism and physical abuse drove them apart, and the final straw came when Ben tested “poz” for HIV and his father threw him out.
Mike’s story echoes Ben’s in some ways. His father, too, was an alcoholic and abuser, but Mike’s greatest resentment was born from the man’s desertion of his wife and child — when Mike was a boy, Eiju moved back to Japan, and his son hasn’t seen him since.
That’s about to change. Mike’s mother, Mitsuko (who moved back to Tokyo after Mike was grown), tells him that she’s coming to Houston for a visit — and that his father is dying. Mike tells Ben that he’s flying to Osaka the day after she arrives. “Just for a few weeks, he says. Or maybe a couple of months, he says. But I need to go.”
That will leave Ben hosting a woman he’s never met for he doesn’t know how long. Mitsuko is furious at Mike and not much happier with Ben, and she lets him know it. His job at a day care center becomes a respite — Mitsuko might ice him out, but the kids love him.
But gradually the two start to form a bond, and it happens in the kitchen. Mike works as a chef, and his skillful cooking is one way he shows Ben affection. Ben understands where Mike learned those skills as he admires Mitsuko’s performances: “Her seasonings are lined up. She douses the meat in what looks like a pool of salt,” Washington writes. “Eventually she pirouettes to the side, flinging the chicken into a pan. It sizzles like a sheet of rain.”
Before long, she’s teaching Ben to cook, and with every recipe he learns more about Mitsuko, and about Mike.
In the meantime, in the book’s second half, Mike narrates what happens when he turns up unannounced in Osaka. It’s hardly a storybook reunion. Eiju wants to know what Mike plans to do with himself while he’s there. “I flew here for you,” Mike tells him, to spend time with him before pancreatic cancer kills him. Fine, his father says. “But you need a job, and I need extra hands.”
That’s how Mike finds himself working in the tiny neighborhood bar his father owns, a bar called Mitsuko. “It sat a few minutes from his busted walkup in Tennoji, beside a bakery and a tattered bookstore and another walkup and two parking lots and like sixteen love hotels.” The bar does most of its business after 10 p.m., and Mike and Eiju often walk home just before dawn.
It looks like a bleak existence to Mike, made no warmer by his father’s hostility; if Eiju and Mitsuko share anything, it’s a knack for razor-edged sarcasm. Gradually, though, he begins to see that Eiju has built a family of sorts in the bar: Kunihiko, the awkward young man who works there, and the regular customers who are there almost every night. And in Osaka as in Houston, food becomes a bond.
During the months Mike spends in Osaka, he and Ben communicate only through sporadic texts and photos (some of which appear in the book), and both of them meet men who make them wonder whether they’ll be a couple again.
Washington brings Mike back to Houston, to Mitsuko and to Ben, who has had his own wary rapprochement with his father in the meantime. There’s a heart-wrenching revelation near the book’s end, and a pretty peculiar memorial to Eiju.
There’s also a tender, expansive ending that’s as satisfying as the first bowl of udon that Ben cooks and Mitsuko approves of, that Ben is so proud of he texts a photo of it to Mike. He “responds immediately. Nice! he says. Mike has never, not once, used an exclamation point in our correspondence. Ever. He’s not one of those people.” In Memorial, love finds a way, whether it’s noodles or punctuation.
By Bryan Washington
Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $27