Mitsuko’s cooking also includes a dash of racism. When Ben says the local H Mart “just might” carry natto — or fermented soy beans, a stinky gloop of brown pellets that has a love-it-or-hate-it reputation even in Japan — Mitsuko deadpans in disbelief, “You know what natto is.” When Ben responds in the affirmative, she remains incredulous: “And you eat natto.” To his boyfriend’s mother, Ben is just a Black man who could not possibly know what natto is, let alone like it. Or, as she puts it to him, “How the hell would I know what you like.”
Flashback sequences reveal race creeping between Mike and Ben as well. “Sure, they had money,” Ben says of his middle-class parents, to Mike, whose immigrant parents struggled financially. “But we’re Black. So that cancels everything out.” Race also clashes awkwardly with their sexuality. Like Washington’s 2019 story collection, “Lot,” this book is set in Houston — specifically the Third Ward, a historically Black district. The couple live there together, but it is Mike who gabs with the neighbors and brings them food, while Ben refuses to acknowledge them, self-conscious about being the gay couple in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Mike is caught in an existential drift that comes from his original displacement, which retains its hold on him even when he arrives in Osaka: “I hadn’t called my boyfriend at home, and home was the only place I wanted to be, even if, technically, I was already there, I had already made it, I was finally back home.” His father, Eiju, runs one of those tiny Japanese bars that live their quiet, secret lives up anonymous staircases. He tells Mike that when he dies, the bar is his. It is Mike’s patrimony, as well as his opportunity to go back home for real.
In plain, confident prose, Washington deftly records the way the forces of loyalty pull the heartstrings in different directions. The tone and dialogue are cool, almost jaded, gesturing obliquely at the emotions roiling beneath the surface. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Ben and Mike, but they both speak in a vernacular that tends to flatten the distinctions between them, as well as between English and Mike’s transliterated Japanese. At one point, Mike tells Eiju, “I think you’re writing checks your ass can’t cash,” an American colloquialism that might ring false to some foreign ears. But it also suggests a touching universality undermining all those barriers Washington has constructed.
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