Originally published September 2019
After reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, it should come as no surprise that Ocean Vuong’s roots in writing come from poetry.
Already an established poet, Vuong’s first novel reads as an extension of that art form. Lyrical and sad, Vuong takes a story about two teen boys fighting poverty, addiction, despair and identity and raises it to the next level. What is constructed as a young man sharing his understanding of who he is and how he became is more than simply a letter to a mother. And it’s the little details within the broad strokes that make this such a beautifully written but certainly sad novel.
Little Dog is the son of a Vietnamese woman born to a woman that prostituted herself to American GIs in an attempt to escape her own familial demons. Living with his mother, Rose and grandmother, Lan, Little Dog’s day-to-day existence often includes weathering mental breakdowns from one or both of these parental units. And in the moments that weren’t spent trying to explain to himself or strangers the odd behavior exhibited by these women, Little Dog was working side by side in the nail salon or taking care of them at home, their minds and bodies exhausted from their laborious day-to-day lives.
In some ways, the story really is about just the day-to-day of trying to survive as an immigrant in a less-than-friendly landscape. Or as gay. Or as an addict. Or all of it. Vuong covers a lot of territory in this letter-writing exercise. It’s a pretty epic tale of self-discovery and as sad as Vuong’s prose is, it as equally beautiful in its descriptions of Connecticut tobacco fields and in a child’s ability to find the beauty in even the most destructive relationships.
This book isn’t for the easily disturbed — there are multiple triggers here when it comes to war, PTSD, drug abuse and parent-child violence. Rose is not a good mother. But it feels as though somehow Little Dog makes peace with that, even finding some kind of acceptance, forgiveness and personal redemption in the book’s waning pages. I chose this book as part of a deliberate effort to diversify my author set — I often find myself unsure about trying someone or something new. But like authors I have tried in the past, such as Edwidge Danticat and Mohsin Hamid, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to explore new voices. Please do not hesitate to pick this up.