Ghosts Come in Many Forms in Bryan Washington’s New Novel

FAMILY MEAL, by Bryan Washington

The act of leaving has been central in the work of the phenomenally precocious Bryan Washington — the leaving of stagnant relationships and rainy-day lovers; the leaving of families and communities that restrain and too often reject; the leaving of old selves; and in some cases, the tragic leaving of this world. But Washington’s fiction is much less concerned with the heartache and devastation commonly caused by such departures and much more obsessed with how absence and exodus create a smithy in which new selves can be forged.

These motifs and considerations return as the central ingredients, masterfully manipulated, in Washington’s new novel, “Family Meal,” in which leaving becomes an art form that the central characters must perfect or refuse.

Appropriately, the novel begins with a jagged reunion. TJ, a Korean American man living in Houston, shows up at the gay bar where his (former) best friend Cam has been working. Cam has returned to the city from Los Angeles after the death of his lover, Kai, but has not tried to see TJ. And it’s not just TJ that Cam is avoiding. Grief over the loss of Kai has closed Cam off to the world of polite society. Instead of settling back into his community, he hooks up with men and blocks them on the apps on the way out. His casual drug use intensifies into something that looks more like addiction. And he is haunted by visions of Kai’s ghost.

When TJ shows up at the bar, Cam at first feels stalked. Their relationship has been complicated, to say the least. Growing up, TJ and Cam were neighbors and good friends. Then, when Cam was 15, his parents were killed in a car crash; TJ’s family took him in; and the boys grew ever closer, with Cam treated as a second son by TJ’s parents. But slowly, an erotic tension developed; they experimented sexually with each other; and their relationship began to feel almost incestuous. When Cam eventually left Houston for college in New York, then moved to Los Angeles, TJ felt stranded, lesser than, betrayed.

Families are difficult for gay men, and too often we have to pretend otherwise. “Family Meal” challenges the idea that such pretense heals us. Throughout the novel, family is, in different ways for each character, a seminal wound, and as Cam and TJ work through the challenging relationships around them, they’re frequently confronted with more pain and confusion, rather than relief.

What makes Washington’s writing about family so refreshing and complex is how he shows the ways people attempt to demonstrate the emotions they otherwise have trouble expressing to the ones they hold dear. Frequently in Washington’s work, and particularly in this novel, that effort comes in the form of food. In the past, during the hardest time in TJ’s life — when TJ became gravely sick and learned that he had H.I.V. — Cam skipped his college graduation to come to Houston and cook all of his meals for two weeks. At the novel’s open, Cam is temporarily living with the owner of the bar where he works, Fern, and Fern’s husband, Jake, both of whom act as roommates, parents and lifeboats. Cooking for them is Cam’s way of returning the hospitality he has received. And a job that Cam eventually takes at TJ’s mother’s bakery offers its own type of healing.

Even in death, food is a potent symbol. As Cam continues to see Kai’s ghost, the apparition morphs: Sometimes Kai appears to be cooking for Cam, something he rarely did in real life. It’s a sign that Kai is not leaving. He has become family for Cam in his own way.

Meanwhile, TJ is also working through two other knotty relationships, one with an engaged man he met at a bathhouse and the other with a nonbinary worker at the bakery, Noel. Both feel like reflections of the relationship he never had with Cam. TJ’s story, which sits at the center of the novel, stands as Washington’s most insightful exploration of how new lives are so often built on the unsturdy framework of past ones.

“Family Meal” juggles a lot — Cam and TJ are both dealing with their present situations and with the phantoms of opportunities ignored and hard choices enacted — but Washington lays it all out with the control and artistry of a ballet choreographer. Each story line gives the other strength. Washington nimbly makes TJ’s “loss” of Cam feel as deserving of mourning as Cam’s loss of Kai, and the vibrancy of Kai’s ghost comes from the full force of all the other unmentioned ghosts in the novel.

Loss, departures, reunions, ghosts — “Family Meal” is a novel about what it means to leave, and how even when it seems we’ve moved on, there are some things that can never be left behind.

Ernesto Mestre-Reed’s most recent novel is “Sacrificio.”

FAMILY MEAL | By Bryan Washington | 306 pp. | Riverhead Books | $28

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