South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Washington serves up the food of love in ‘Memorial’
Ben and Mike have been a couple for about four years, but they’re both wondering howmuch longer it will last. What started as a promising romance has run down to the point that just about the only time they talk, or have sex, is when they fight.
Both come from divorce-fractured homes and are estranged from their families. Until, that is, Mike’s parentsmake separate dramatic returns to their son’s life that leave his relationship with Ben hanging in the balance.
That’s just the beginning of “Memorial,” the engaging and beautifully crafted new novel by Bryan Washington.
In interviews, Washington has called it a “gay slacker dramedy,” and it’s that, but a lot more aswell, including a portrait of the multiple shapes and meanings of family.
This is the second book fromWashington, who is 27. His story collection, “Lot,” published last year, landed him on theNational Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list andwas listed among former President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2019.
The first half of “Memorial” is written fromBen’s point of view, the second fromMike’s. Ben’s half is set inHouston, where the pair live. They’re an interracial couple— Ben is Black, and Mike emigrated fromJapan with his parents as a kid— in a multicultural city.
They share an apartment in the ThirdWard, a historically Black neighborhood that is gentrifying rapidly.
Ben grewup in a different neighborhood, in a middle-class homewith his sister, mother and
father, aTVmeteorologist. His father’s alcoholism and physical abuse drove them apart, and the final straw camewhen Ben tested “poz” forHIVand his father threwhim out.
Mike’s story echoes Ben’s in someways. His father, too, was an alcoholic and abuser, but Mike’s greatest resentment was born fromthe man’s desertion of his wife and child— when Mikewas a boy, Eijumoved back to Japan, and his son hasn’t seen him since.
That’s about to change. Mike’s mother, Mitsuko (whomoved back toTokyo after Mikewas grown), tells him that she’s coming toHouston for a visit— and that his father is dying. Mike tells Ben that he’s flying to Osaka the day after she arrives.
That will leave Ben hosting awoman he’s never met for he doesn’t know howlong. Mitsuko is furious at Mike and notmuch happier with Ben, and she lets him knowit. His job at a day care center becomes a respite.
But gradually the two start to form a bond, and it happens in the kitchen. Mikeworks as a chef, and his skillful cooking is one way he shows Ben affection. Ben understands where Mike learned those skills as he admires Mitsuko’s performances.
Before long, she’s teachingBen to cook, andwith every recipe he learns more about Mitsuko, and aboutMike.
In the meantime, in the book’s second half, Mike narrates what happens when he turns up unannounced in Osaka. It’s hardly a storybook reunion. Eijuwants to knowwhat Mike plans to do with himself while he’s there. “I flewhere for you,” Mike tells him, to spend time with him before pancreatic cancer kills him. Fine, his father says. “But you need a job, and I need extra hands.”
That’s howMike finds himselfworking in the tiny neighborhood bar his father owns, a bar called Mitsuko.
It looks like a bleak existence to Mike, made nowarmer by his father’s hostility; if Eiju and Mitsuko share anything, it’s a knack for razoredged sarcasm. Gradually, though, he begins to see that Eiju has built a family of sorts in the bar: Kunihiko, the awkward young manwhoworks there, and the regular customers whoare there almost every night. And inOsaka as in Houston, food becomes a bond.
During the months Mike spends in Osaka, he and Ben communicate only through sporadic texts and photos and both of them meet men who make them wonder whether they’ll be a couple again.
Washington brings Mike back toHouston, to Mitsuko and to Ben, who has had his ownwary rapprochement with his father in the meantime. There’s a heart-wrenching revelation near the book’s end, and a pretty peculiar memorial toEiju.