Memorial is a Flop


By Bryan Washington

Riverhead Books, 306 pages.



Should a reviewer cut a gay novel more slack than one involving straight characters? How about if one of the characters is African American and the other is Japanese? Or should that reviewer simply call it like it is and say he is in the presence of a bad piece of writing? Given that I am the reviewer in question, I opt to call Memorial a dud.


It details the relationship between Benson, a black American, and his Japanese partner “Mike.” They have a lot of sex together, though mostly for the wrong reasons. Sex is what they do when they can’t communicate or resolve their disagreements, which is nearly all of the time. Memorial is set in Houston, where Mike has been for a long time and where “Ben” grew up in some comfort. They now live in the city’s Third Ward, a classic gentrifying but not yet transformed neighborhood. Mike, who comes from a broken home, is a slacker who goes from one low-wage restaurant to another. Ben—who is HIV positive-—works in a daycare center and is good with the kids, though he’s pretty lousy with most adults, including Mike. Not that Mike is much better. If you don’t already think that the F-bomb has grown boorish and tiresome, you’ll be ready to call for an outright ban if you pick up this novel. Take it out and this book would lose half its bulk.


Nothing much makes sense in the book. Mike’s mother Mitsuko is jetting her way from her home in Tokyo to Houston where she once lived. So what does Mike do? He flies to Osaka to care for his father Eiju, who has terminal pancreatic cancer. Is that noble? Not really; he despises his father and hasn’t even spoken to him in years. Plus, what kind of partner sticks his boyfriend with his mother, whom Ben has never met, to go to Japan for several months? Ben doesn’t even know if Mitsuko speaks English. She does and expresses disapproval about everything from her ex-husband to Ben and the apartment.


Washington tries to salvage the novel about half way through by switching from the Mike/Ben relationship to back stories that flesh out their respective dysfunctional families. This includes Mike’s attempt to help his father run his small bar, much to the chagrin of Kunihiko who has been a surrogate son to Eiju and hoped to inherit the bar. For the record, Eiju speaks with the same expletive-laced overgrown junior high school vocabulary as Mike and Ben. If none of this makes any sense to you, trust me that it’s not worth trying to understand it any more than trying to rationalize Mike’s casual hookups in Osaka or Ben’s attraction to Omar, the brother of a sullen child named Ahmad with whom only Ben can relate.

Yeah, yeah, there is a sort of coming together of the respective families, but do we care? I surely did not. Nor did I care whether or not Mike decides to go back to Osaka after his father’s death, a subplot involving the forthcoming marriage of one of Ben’s colleagues, or whether there is any hope for Mike and Ben.


It’s this simple. Unless you’re David Mamet and can concoct compelling drama to accompany foul-mouthed characters, the F-bomb is not cutting edge literature. I know nothing about author Bryan Washington. Maybe he has a great novel in him somewhere, but Memorial is a boring book marred by immature writing. Mike and Ben remind me of something Tom Lehrer once said: “If a person feels he can’t communicate, the least he can do is shut up about it.”


Rob Weir


March 2021 Music: Joy Formidable, Rob Williams, Our Girl, Frances Quinlan




If I told you that The Joy Formidable (TJF) sings a really great song titled “Y Golau Mwyaf ywr Cysgod Mwyaf,” where would you reckon they’re from? Wales, of course, a place where Vanna White could have made a fortune selling vowels. Rhiannon Bryan holds down most of the lead vocals, but her voice is often supplemented by the light tenor of bass/acoustic guitar player Rhydian Dafydd, who uses tones that approach falsetto to provide bell-like scaffolding for Bryan. Matthew James Thomas keeps everything steady with all manner of percussion, including tambourine jingles on his shoes. There are lots of wonderful Welsh bands, but the only other place where Welsh is the main language is a small section of Patagonia. Bands with a wider outreach such as TJF also often sing in English. The post-punk “Austere” is one example of this, though I prefer more-controlled songs such as “Silent Treatment,” with its faint echoes of Scandinavian kulning vocals, and their acoustic treatment of the curiously named “My Beerdrunk Soul is Sadder than a Hundred Dead Christmas Trees.” (The album version is loud and obscures the lyrics.) Plus, I love the tone of Dafydd’s Taylor guitar.  But if you prefer big feedback-laden noisy rock, try “Whirring.” If you didn’t pick up before that Bryan is a dynamo, you’ll be clear after this one. And her bandmates can bring it as well. It’s more hype than they need, IMHO, but their mix of soft, hard, and electronica is infectious even when it goes over the top. It’s not the same repertoire by any means, but somehow TJF put me in mind of The Cowboy Junkies minus the covers. In case you’re wondering, the Welsh in the first song translates “The Biggest Light is the Biggest Shadow.”   


Richmond’s Rob (“don’t call me Robbie”) Williams has a recent release, Weathering the Storm, Vol. 1 whose title holds a double meaning. It’s a commentary of the past year of coping with the Covid crisis, as well as a nod to his own recovery from depression. His is music in a country folk/indie rock vein. If you’re not familiar with his music, his song “Nameless” helps explain why: If you wonder what became of me, I’m nothing but happy/Don’t want to be famous, I’m content being nameless. He might not get a choice about the fame part; he’s too good of a songwriter to remain forever in the shadows. He currently works with a tight band that toggles between subdued and loud. “Falling Sky” is one of the latter, courtesy of older sister Leslie’s electric guitar. Like a lot of Rob Williams’ songs, this one opts for depth rather than just being catchy. It’s about a different kind of noise–the litany of media-driven doom and woe–that tries to convince us the sky is falling. Williams is also a fine narrative songwriter. “Ghostwriter” is a wordy semi-love song, though each syllable matters. It’s one of two love-that-burns-but-burns-out stories, this one between characters titled Rosie and Justin. The other is “Long Distance” and its hook line–Sarah does what Simon says–presages what happens. It’s about a bicoastal relationship that eventually dissolves when Sarah decides to stop doing what Simon says. Williams is his own man, but for those fishing for analogies, his acoustic-driven songs evoke Josh Ritter.


Our Girl
is a trio from Brighton, England, fronted by Soph Nathan, who sings and plays electric guitar. The band has been compared to a mix of The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. I like Nathan and she can shred, but the repertoire needs refinement. “I Really Like It” has some nice pop tinges to balance the grunge, but by the time it’s done, Josh Tyler’s simple but effective bass lines are more memorable than the noise that follows. “Two Life” is like this as well. There’s potential in the band’s blend of charm, energy, and garage guitar, but I heard four songs and they were all very similar.


I heard a bit of Frances Quinlan with the Philadelphia-based indie band Hop Along and enjoyed her. I was, alas, totally underwhelmed by Quinlan’s three-song set at Paste Studios. Several things. First, when you’re 34, don’t sing like you’re 14. Second, hire a guitarist. Listen to “DetroitLake.” If you don’t like it, move on as the other two have the same feel.


The Only Good Indians Thrills and Chills



By Stephen Graham Jones

Saga Press, 312 pages.




Social scientists use the word “thin” when referencing cultures in which the boundaries between the natural and supernatural are porous. This describes well the world views of many indigenous peoples. Steven Graham Jones­­—a member of the Blackfeet nation—plays upon thinness in a new novel that’s equal parts mystery and horror tale. He keeps us guessing through the entirety of the novel. Are we reading about an elaborate murder revenge plot, or something beyond our comprehension?


It is set in and around Great Falls, Montana, where there is a Blackfeet reservation, but also a lot of Crow Natives who have migrated northward. The story centers on four Blackfeet friends from childhood—Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy, and Gabe—and opens in North Dakota, where Ricky dies after being trampled by a herd of elk. Sudden death of young Natives is, alas, an all too common phenomenon, but Ricky’s death unsettles his friends, especially Lewis, who long ago moved off the reservation with his longtime white partner, Peta.


Lewis is trying to break away from the reservation’s cycle of poverty. He and Peta live near Great Falls and Lewis holds down a steady job with the U.S. postal service. He makes up joking headlines to parody himself and Native life, such as “Indian Man First in History to Pick Up After Himself,” and immerses himself in reading graphic novels. He is, though, haunted by an incident from his high school years when he, Ricky, Cass, and Gabe trespassed on lands reserved for the elders and blasted away at a herd of elk. Much to his eternal consternation, he shot a calf and had to kill it rather brutally as it struggled. It was pregnant and he felt so horrible that he butchered it, gave away the meat, skinned it, and has carried the hide with him for more than a decade. Imagine the chill when he thinks he sees an elk-headed woman as he is trying to fix a ceiling fan. Is he being pranked by Shaney, a Native woman who seems to have designs on him? Have the graphic novels warped his perspective? His conclusions are chilling to say the least, as is his fate.


Back on the reservation, Cass and Gabe prepare for a sweat that will help teach young Nathan, the son of game warden Denny Pease, the ways of the Blackfeet, not that they are necessarily the best representatives of those traditions. Before the night is over, they too will be imperiled, as will be Denny, Cass’s Crow girlfriend Jo, and Gabe’s daughter Denorah, a high school basketball star who finds herself in a pickup game and flight for her life. And again the question arises as to who is responsible for what transpires. I sincerely doubt that you will anticipate the novel’s resolution or how it gets there, though I’m sure you will admire the resourceful Denorah. 


Jones is a consummate storyteller who doesn’t care whether or not you think myth and reality can collide. Does the Elk-Headed Spirit haunt in the material world, in the mind, or is it merely an elaborate and sanguinary ruse? Must old debts be paid before anyone can rest? Do ghosts walk among us, correct the past, and then fade? In a thin world view, all things are possible. Or do they merely appear to be so? The Only Good Indians bears some resemblance to literary works employing magical realism, but even this doesn’t quite get it. Think thin. Think also of maternal determination and female self-empowerment.  


This is a white-knuckle novel masterfully told. It will make you quake and rethink what you think justice demands. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. You have no idea how cold!


Rob Weir