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‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ Captures a Young Immigrant’s Troubles and Ecstasies



The strongest parts of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” where this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song “The River,” arrive in its second half. This is where the narrator details his doomed love affair with Trevor, a boy he meets while both work in the tobacco fields.

Trevor is, in Little Dog’s words, a “redneck” — a slightly older kid who wears a John Deere cap, drives a pickup truck and shoots and skins raccoons. Trevor makes Little Dog, one of society’s invisibles, feel seen. Looking back at Trevor, he thinks: “I studied him like a new word.”

The writing comes in a rush, bliss on the topic of bliss: “I wanted more, the scent, the atmosphere of him, the taste of French fries and peanut butter underneath the salve of his tongue, the salt around his neck from the two-hour drives to nowhere and a Burger King at the edge of the county, a day of tense talk with his old man, the rust from the electric razor he shared with that old man, how I would always find it on his sink in its sad plastic case, the tobacco, weed and cocaine on his fingers mixed with motor oil, all of it accumulating into the afterscent of wood smoke caught and soaked in his hair.”

Speaking of pleasures: About Trevor’s old man, we read: “He looked like Elvis on his last day alive.”

This novel contains some pungent lines in which the narrator, fully grown and a successful writer, seems to push back against those who would admire or blurb his work.

“They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent.”

Vuong’s novel is a mixed success, a book of highs and lows. At its best, it’s unleashed in every regard.

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