ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, by Ocean Vuong, is an incandescent, devastating novel/prose poem. Written as a letter from Little Dog to his mother, a letter she cannot read because she’s illiterate, the story explores language, family, identity, and what it means to be seen.
Little Dog’s mother, Rose (Hồng in Vietnamese), left school at five when a napalm bomb destroyed her school. At nineteen, having worked as a prostitute to feed herself, and pregnant with another man’s child, she married a US serviceman. She named her son Little Dog, hoping to trick evil spirits into overlooking something insignificant and of little value. His name, like language, like the novel itself, became a screen to both protect and reveal.
The story is constructed in linked anecdotes that move associatively across time and place. There’s the nightmarish scene in Saigon with a macaque monkey. There’s Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, standing by a Vietnamese roadside holding her infant daughter wrapped in a sky-blue shawl. There is Little Dog, in a Hartford Connecticut schoolyard.
“‘Hey.’ The jowlboy leaned in, his vinegar mouth on the side of my cheek. ‘Don’t you ever say nothin’? Don’t you speak English?’ He grabbed my shoulder and spun me to face him. ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you.’
He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.” (24)
Violence is a constant in Little Dog’s world. When his mother returns home, exhausted, her hands raw from long hours working in a nail salon, she has neither words nor power to help her son.
“…‘Stop crying—I said stop, dammit!’
The third slap that day flung my gaze to one side, the TV screen flashed before my head snapped back to face you. Your eyes darted back and forth across my face.
Then you pulled me into you, my chin pressed hard to your shoulder.” (26)
Little Dog lives between worlds, the voice for his mother when she can’t speak English, the one to whom she directs her bouts of violence and love. He’s witness to the stories of his mother and grandmother’s past. Bullied at school, he finds solace in the back room of his mother’s nail salon gathered around a steaming pot of pho, “aromas of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint, and cardamom mixing with formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, Pine-Sol, and bleach.” (80)
Although Little Dog’s life at home is difficult, when he runs away one night as a child, he looks down from the tree he’s climbed to find his grandmother looking up.
“‘You don’t need to be scared, Little Dog…’ Something crinkled. In her arms, held like a baby, was a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. In her other hand was a Poland Spring water bottle filled with warm jasmine tea. She kept muttering to herself, ‘You don’t need to be scared. No need.’” (122)
He also has his grandfather, Paul, a Vietnam vet who accepts Little Dog as his own, even though Paul isn’t really Little Dog’s grandfather at all.
The summer he turns fourteen, Little Dog gets a summer job working on a tobacco farm, where he meets Trevor, two years older, the grandson of the tobacco farm’s owner. Trevor rides into Little Dog’s life in a pickup truck and John Deere cap, smoking weed laced with cocaine.
“…his eyes lingering, then flitting away when I caught them. I was seen—I who had seldom been seen by anyone. I who was taught, by you, to be invisible in order to be safe.
…And I wanted it, for his gaze to fix me to the world I felt only halfway inside of.” (96)
Their discovery of one another is threaded with tenderness, violence and desire. Trevor, whose father is an alcoholic, and whose mother took off long ago, is filled with rage. When he lifts his shotgun to shoot a sparrow, “He touches the trigger’s black tongue and you swear you taste his finger in your mouth.” (154) He’s also a boy who loves sunflowers. “Imagine going so high and still opening that big…It’s kind of like being brave.” (154). And he’s a young man sobbing, shaking, terrified that he might be, that he is gay, in a world where “‘we love eatin’ what’s soft,’ his father said, looking dead.” (156)
As Trevor spirals further into addiction, his relationship with Little Dog, like so much in this broken world, is destined for heartbreak. In one of their last times together, when Little Dog is about to take the monumental step of leaving home to go to college, Trevor shoots up after his shift at the Pennzoil plant.
“He falls back in the seat, lets his head roll to one side, and eases out a come-on grin. He starts to fumble the buckle over his Levi’s.
‘Come on, Trev. You’re blazed. Let’s not, okay?’
…He drops his hands, they lie in his lap like unearthed roots. ‘You think I’m fucked up?’
‘No,’ I mumble…‘I think you’re just you.’” (169)
Little Dog is able to hold the terrible sadness and the grace, to forge a space to exist within it. “It was beauty, I learned, that we risked our selves for.” (208)
The pain, though, is so pervasive that it’s as if language itself oscillates through moments of savage honesty before retreating, sometimes sliding into journalistic reporting—on butterflies, the opioid crisis, Tiger Woods. At other times, interspersed with flashbacks and graphic, erotic scenes between Trevor and Little Dog, the prose fades to ruminations on philosophy or abstractions on the meaning of life. Language shape-shifts, gathering courage for the next searing revelation.
Ocean Vuong has talked about a crossing of borders, language pushed beyond itself. How it could take a whole lifetime to get an inch closer, as a nation and as individuals, but even that inch could be enough, so large, so important, that it could be a victory, a mother and son, struggling side by side. ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS takes on the heroic task of breaching the divide that fractures our shared humanity, of bringing us closer with nothing more, nothing less than words. “Some will call it shrapnel, some will call it art.” (232)