Ocean Vuong’s new novel

Poet and essayist Ocean Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam. He immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. He is the author of the acclaimed book of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, which won the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize. His first novel is one of the most anticipated books of the summer season. The prose – as would be expected – streams poetically across the pages in telling a story that’s profoundly moving in its emotional transparency.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The narrator is known to us as Little Dog, a 28-year-old queer Vietnamese American writing a letter to his illiterate mother. As refugees, they arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, when Little Dog was just a boy, his mother and grandmother survivors of the Vietnam War. “When does a war end?” Little Dog writes. “When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?”

He knows his mother won’t read the letter – she can’t – and yet this is the only way he can tell her what he has felt and lived. His childhood memories fall randomly onto the page about being bullied at school, shopping at Goodwill and riding the roller coaster at Six Flags, and also about protecting his head from his mother’s fists and running from her raised knife. Toy soldiers scattered on the floor enrage his exhausted, war-haunted mother who works in a nail salon. She doesn’t speak English, and Little Dog commits to being her interpreter after she embarrasses herself trying to communicate to the butcher that she wants to buy an oxtail.

Floundering, you placed your index finger at the small of your back, turned slightly, so the man could see, then wiggled your finger while making mooing sounds. With your other hand, you made a pair of horns above your head. You moved, carefully twisting and gyrating so he could recognize each piece of this performance: horns, tail, ox. But he only laughed…

Author Ocean Vuong captures our attention with a poet’s intuitive arrangement — moments, conversations, scenes and reflections connected by meaning and image, juxtaposed to create sensory impact rather than story line. We read about the monarch butterfly’s migration south and then the napalm clouds of his mother’s youth;  we read about the Vietnam War experience of Earl Woods and the son he named after the soldier he fought beside – a man he called Tiger – and then of Little Dog’s visit with his American grandfather, a Vietnam veteran in Virginia. Little Dog writes to his mother:

I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck – the pieces floating, lit up, finally legible.

The summer he turns 14, Little Dog works in tobacco fields outside Hartford. He meets Trevor, a drug-addicted boy being raised by an indifferent father. For three years Trevor and Little Dog share friendship and explore their physical desire for one another in shame and joy. Here is the story’s vital center, the time that launches Little Dog forward into self-realization, emotional freedom and a never before known love and visibility. In one of the book’s many powerful moments, he reveals his sexuality to his mother, and she does not judge him, this boy she loves and needs.

After the tobacco fields, Little Dog attends college and becomes a writer. His letter is unflaggingly somber and at times brutally raw in what evolves into an exceptional novel, powerful in language, message and poetic vision. In the end Little Dog writes:

All this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Penguin Press. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.

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