On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press, 2019
Ocean Vuong’s 2016 work of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was the kind of debut most young authors only ever dream about. Even readers neither conversant with or tolerant of the hothouse solipsism that characterizes a great deal of contemporary poetry found Night Sky with Exit Wounds raw and genuinely moving.
In his new book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong attempts the time-honored but nonetheless perilous trick of switching genres; here, he goes from writing extremely Ocean Vuong-centered verse to writing Ocean Vuong-centered prose so mimeographic it practically comes with links to his Instagram feed. The book’s organizing conceit is that its main character, Little Dog, is writing an enormously long letter to his mother about not only the details of his life but also the details of her own. This is a curious exercise, since Little Dog knows his mother is illiterate; it’s salvaged only by the fact that Little Dog clearly also knows he’s a character in a piece of essentially unchallengeable auto-fiction.
The story of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother occupies the first half of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is competently done, and has no connection whatsoever to the book’s second half, in which Little Dog falls in love with a boy named Trevor while they’re both working on a tobacco farm outside Hartford. Trevor isn’t 100% certain he’s gay (at one point he theorizes that he’ll basically grow out of it), but he doesn’t want to be rude, so the two are quickly assaying each other in passages that shuttle between purple and beautiful like the pendulum of a metronome:
Something took over and I told him - no, begged him - to do it harder. And he did. He lifted me nearly off the bed by the roots of my follicles. With each thrust, a light turned on and off inside me. I flickered, like a bulb in a storm, seeking myself in his steering. He let go of my hair only to put his arm under my neck. My lips brushed his forearm and I could taste the salt concentrated there. Recognition flinched inside him. This is how we were going to do it from now on. The gates had flung open, the gates a memory. The air between us a hot weather we had made, masters we were, at last, of small and ghosting minutes.
The drift of aimless yearning and pointed ecstasy in this story is beautifully done. Vuong steadily and subtly darkens the atmosphere between the two boys, so that even non-coital moments carry a charge of both poetry and pathos:
We stopped at the top of one of the hills, exhausted. Moonlight appraised the orchard to our right, the apples, glowing dimly on their branches, dropping here and there in quick thuds, their sweet fermented stink in our lungs. Deep in the oaks across the road, invisible tree frogs let out their rasped calls like worn-down old men.
(Vuong also carefully, surgically removes all hint of anything like parental support for this budding relationship. Trevor’s loutish father taunts him: “I made you fine, Trev. I know I did,” and, after Little Dog opens his heart to his mother, she castigates him in nearly identical language: “I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy. I know that”)
This Trevor storyline is richly felt and only gets more deeply involving when, in quick brush-strokes, Vuong tells us that Trevor took OxyContin for a month after breaking his ankle and quickly became “a full-blown addict” - hastening the narrative toward the doom it’s been suggesting for dozens of pages. Had Vuong expanded his Trevor plot to full-book length and perhaps done a better job of grafting his mother’s story onto it, instead of simply plopping them down next to each other like condiment jars on a table, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous might have been that most elusive beast, a modern classic of gay fiction. As it is, when Little Dog tells his unlistening mother “You asked me what it was like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess,” readers might agree a bit too enthusiastically.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.