Ocean Vuong is a young Vietnamese-American writer — born in Saigon, he was raised in Hartford, Conn. — who made his debut in 2016 with “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” a strong and much-praised book of poems.
Vuong returns now with his second book and first novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” (It’s the kind of title about which Dorothy Parker might have commented, “Speak for yourself.”) Like his first book, this one is semi-autobiographical and speaks solemnly to his experiences as an immigrant and a gay man.
The narrator of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is known to nearly everyone as Little Dog. He’s a writer in his late 20s, but this story is told largely in retrospect. We learn about his troubled family and youth, and about some occasional ecstasies, sexual and otherwise.
Little Dog’s abusive father is absent. His mother works at a nail salon, smokes Marlboro Reds and has PTSD from the napalm and mortars that fell in Vietnam when she was a child. Her English is poor. She hits Little Dog too often, once smiting him with a box of Legos. This novel takes the form of a letter to her.
Lan, Little Dog’s elderly grandmother, also lives in Hartford. She has schizophrenia and is dying of cancer. Back home, during the Vietnam War, she worked as a prostitute, a bar girl, and was deemed a traitor for her dalliances with the enemy.
[Read our profile of Ocean Vuong.]
Little Dog’s ostensible grandfather, a former American Navy man named Paul, met Lan in Saigon. Paul and Lan are now estranged. Thanks to Agent Orange, he has cancer as well.
This is not Wallace Stevens’s decorous, button-down Hartford. Vuong pins the details of these marginalized immigrant lives, the food stamps and Goodwill stores and Thomas Kinkade images and expensive nighttime E.S.L. classes and trips to the corner store for “cigarettes and Hot Cheetos.”
Vuong is a mightily gifted observer. Gunshots in downtown Hartford sound “like Little League home runs cracked one after another out of the night’s park.” After a day of work in nearby tobacco fields, Little Dog’s hands are “so thick and black with sap, dirt, pebbles and splinters, they resembled the bottom of a pan of burned rice.”
Some lines have the almost hallucinatory exactness of his best poems: “The black wren this morning on my windowsill: a charred pear.” He can also dispatch Lenny Bruce-like wisecracks: “The one good thing about national anthems is that we’re already on our feet, and therefore ready to run.”
Vuong’s writing about nail salons, and the way mothers raised their children in them, is moving and rarely less than excellent.
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is, at the same time, filled with showy, affected writing, with forced catharses and swollen quasi-profundities. There are enough of these that this novel’s keel can lodge in the mud.
“A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved.”
“There’s Mozzicato’s on Franklin, where I had my first cannoli. Where nothing I knew ever died.”
“The rain keeps on because nourishment, too, is a force.”
“They say everything happens for a reason — but I can’t tell you why the dead always outnumber the living.”
“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation.”
“Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you didn’t have to live on one side or the other?”
“Deep Purple Feeling” could be an alternative title for certain swaths of this novel. Each of these lines, and this is only a small selection, is a pebble in the reader’s shoe.
The strongest parts of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” where this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song “The River,” arrive in its second half. This is where the narrator details his doomed love affair with Trevor, a boy he meets while both work in the tobacco fields.
Trevor is, in Little Dog’s words, a “redneck” — a slightly older kid who wears a John Deere cap, drives a pickup truck and shoots and skins raccoons. Trevor makes Little Dog, one of society’s invisibles, feel seen. Looking back at Trevor, he thinks: “I studied him like a new word.”
The writing comes in a rush, bliss on the topic of bliss: “I wanted more, the scent, the atmosphere of him, the taste of French fries and peanut butter underneath the salve of his tongue, the salt around his neck from the two-hour drives to nowhere and a Burger King at the edge of the county, a day of tense talk with his old man, the rust from the electric razor he shared with that old man, how I would always find it on his sink in its sad plastic case, the tobacco, weed and cocaine on his fingers mixed with motor oil, all of it accumulating into the afterscent of wood smoke caught and soaked in his hair.”
Speaking of pleasures: About Trevor’s old man, we read: “He looked like Elvis on his last day alive.”
This novel contains some pungent lines in which the narrator, fully grown and a successful writer, seems to push back against those who would admire or blurb his work.
“They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent.”
Vuong’s novel is a mixed success, a book of highs and lows. At its best, it’s unleashed in every regard.