Book review: Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” 

  • Northampton writer Ocean Vuong, whose 2016 poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” won several major awards, reads from his new book, the novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” on Sunday at Mount Holyoke College. Photo by Tom Hines

  • In his new book, Ocean Vuong combines fiction, memoir and poetry in what one reviewer calls “a raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.”

  • Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” won Great Britain’s 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, among other awards.

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 30, 2019

In an interview with the Gazette a couple years ago, Ocean Vuong, who won widespread praise for his debut poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” noted that he’d visited Iceland a number of times and been struck by the country’s unique literary tradition — one in which writers “introduce themselves as poets” before moving on to fiction. 

“That’s kind of how it’s been done for a long time there,” he said. “You begin with poetry to see where you stand, and I see myself as being part of that tradition.”

Vuong, who lives in Northampton, is making good on that thinking. His new book, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” shows him stretching his storytelling arc in a work that is part novel, part memoir, part poetry and for much of the narrative, quite raw: a book that seeks to use words to preserve memories and connections to other people, no matter how painful or difficult.

In a book that moves back and forth in time, employs different narrative voices and offers a fragmented, non-linear storyline, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” begins as a letter from a young Vietnamese-American man to his mother. Little Dog — the nickname his grandmother, Lan, gave him as a boy — who’s now a writer, is looking back at his childhood, trying to make sense of his life and his family, in particular his relationship with his mother, and trying to explain to her why he’s a writer and what he’s trying to accomplish.

It’s a relationship fraught with charged memories of his mother’s violence, sudden flares of anger that would seem to come out of nowhere: “The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch…. Then the time with the remote control. A bruised welt on my forearm I would lie about to my teachers. ‘I fell playing tag.’ ”

His mother apologizes, takes him to McDonald’s or gets him a toy to compensate. And, Little Dog writes, he would later understand his mother had been a victim of abuse herself — from his long-vanished father (“your nose still crooked from his countless backhands”), from torment she suffered as a girl from other children, and from years of bone-hard, poor paying work as a manicurist, inhaling chemicals and crippling her back from continually bending over her clients.

Vuong draws on his own experience as he begins filling in the background of the story. He was born in Vietnam in 1988 and came to the U.S. at age 2 after he and his family spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines. He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and was raised by his mother, grandmother and two aunts, absorbing their stories about Vietnam.

Little Dog feels his sense of otherness in America, being “small and yellow,” just as his mother and Lan were marked as outsiders in Vietnam: Lan for having an affair with the “enemy” — an American soldier in the Vietnam War — and his mother for being the product of this mixed-race union.

Yet the three make a home of sorts in America, finding ways to care for one another amid grinding poverty and social dislocation. In one scene, Little Dog plucks white hairs from his grandmother’s head (“Make Grandma young today, okay?” she says) with tweezers while she regales him with familiar tales; and his mother, using pink nail polish, carefully repaints his new bike, which some bullies had vandalized. 

“It’s true that, in Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you, and when we do it is almost always in English,” Little Dog writes. “Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service: plucking white hairs, pressing yourself on your son to absorb a plane’s turbulence and, therefore, his fear.” 

A central part of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is the narrator’s teenage love affair with a white boy, Trevor, who he meets while the two work on a tobacco farm outside Hartford. It’s here Little Dog first confronts his homosexuality, a state of being he comes to accept even as Trevor tries to deny his. “Please tell me I am not, he said, I am not/ a faggot. Am I? Am I? Are you?”

Trevor is tormented in other ways, descending into opioid addiction and seething with anger at his father, with whom he shares a battered trailer near the Connecticut River. Vuong’s scenes with the two teens are among the most vivid in the book, with quick, precise renderings of places and people. The two boys sit at one point on a worn couch in Trevor’s mobile home as his father watches TV: “[W]e could smell him, strong with drink and cheap cigars … He had a thick face and close-cropped pomaded hair … like Elvis on his last day alive.”

Some years later, now a college student in New York City studying English, Little Dog returns to Hartford, giving Vuong an opportunity to sketch a portrait of the grim urban landscape he grew up in. From boarded-up buildings, to playgrounds surrounded by wire fences so rusted and twisted they appear “as organic as vines,” Little Dog recalls a city of “two a.m. gunshots, of two p.m. gunshots, the wives and the girlfriends at the C-Town checkout with black eyes and cut lips, who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say, Mind your business.” 

Hartford, Little Dog recalls, was also a place “where fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of their children’s lives, like my own father.” That sentence points to the novel’s examination not just of race, class and war but of masculinity, particularly what it means to be a man in America. In an early scene, the young Little Dog is bullied on a school bus by a group of boys, one of whom grabs him and says “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

“He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers,” Little Dog writes.

If much of this sounds grim, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” does suggests that time, if it doesn’t heal all wounds, can still bring a measure of wisdom and hope to one’s life.

Vuong, who teaches in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, won a number of major awards for “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” including a 2016 Whiting Award in the U.S. and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize in Great Britain. Critics pointed to the unique way he took sentences apart and put them back together; the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote “Mr. Vuong can create startling images … and make the silences and elisions in his verse speak as potently as his words.”

He’s done something similar with “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” and it’s not to be arty. In a November 2017 interview at the online site Literary Hub, Vuong explained that he wanted to write a book that might challenge the notion of a “finished work” reflecting what he called “canonical Western values.” He was interested in a story that could speak more to his experience as an immigrant and to that of erased and ignored histories.

As he put it, “To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Ocean Vuong will begin a month-long tour for “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” with an appearance Sunday at Hooker Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. The event is sponsored by the Odyssey Bookshop. You can RSVP for the event at odysseybks.com.