South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Washington serves up the food of love in ‘Memorial’

- By Colette Bancroft

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.

 ??  ?? “Memorial” BryanWashi­ngton Riverhead Books (320 pages, $27)
“Memorial” BryanWashi­ngton Riverhead Books (320 pages, $27)

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