On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fictionalized account of a Vietnamese-American On Earthlife, as told by a grown-up son in a series of letters to his mother.

Little Dog is the son of Rose, a daughter born during the Vietnam War of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier.  He and his family immigrate to Hartford, Connecticut when Little Dog is about two.  As his mother doesn’t really speak English, he learns it as a second language when he begins school.

Little Dog’s home life is erratic.  His mother, who supports the family by nail salon work and occasional factory stints, varies from supportive to physically abusive.  His grandmother Lan, who comes to live with them, is schizophrenic, but in her coherent times is a loving person who adds a creative edge to their life.

At school, other kids bully Little Dog; his teachers don’t get him.  It’s into his teens that he gets acceptance of a sort, when he works summers on a nearby tobacco farm.  Amid some good-natured jostling, the other workers generally get along with him.

Along with the job comes his first love when he meets Trevor, the slightly older grandson of the farm’s owner.  Trevor’s alcoholic father is also abusive to him; the two have complicated home lives in common.  There’s a rough tenderness to Trevor.  He is quick with drug abuse and bravado, but has a vulnerability to him.

Early on in the book, I was prepared to perceive the mother as some horrible person – and she wasn’t.  There are some graphic descriptions of physical abuse early into the book, but the author doesn’t dwell on it; rather, there is more of an empathy for the mother, considering the trauma that she and her mother lived through in Vietnam.

Lan, the grandmother, is a stabilizing person in the household; she acts as a buffer between Little Dog and his mother.  Even though Lan suffers from mental illness, she is able to see the briefest glimmerings of beauty in their world of poverty.

A much older version of the American soldier who is Little Dog’s grandfather, or who accepts responsibility for being the grandfather, appears in short passages throughout the book.  Vuong also renders him a caring figure, one who is quick to acknowledge Little Dog as his grandson.

This book is a coming-of-age account, but I wouldn’t call it typical.   The writing is beautiful and dreamlike, and there are places where flashbacks appear fairly quickly.  Vuong made his mark earlier as a poet, and the descriptive passages in the book certainly show this.  In fact, there’s a whole brief chapter which is a poem in itself.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


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