In writing that merges poetry and prose, Ocean Vuong composes aching beautiful sentences that illuminate the realities of exile, racism, homophobia, and addiction while also ennobling the courage and strength of those who endure them. Like the stunning poems of his Night Sky With Exit Wounds, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, $26) speaks from the heart of multi-generational PTSD and charts the fate of a Vietnamese-American family struggling to shake the past and settle into life in Hartford, CT. Vuong frames his novel as a letter from Little Dog, a young gay writer, to his mother. The only one of his family fluent in English, Little Dog sees language as the key to belonging in America, and his determination to record all he knows of his relatives’ lives infuses his every word with a life-or-death urgency. Along with stories of his mother and grandmother, he tells of his own coming-of-age as a gay man, a narrative that becomes a moving elegy to his first lover, Trevor—dead of an overdose at twenty-two. Made up of tales, memories, nightmares, and prose poems, Vuong’s kaleidoscopic novel repeatedly evokes the sounds, sights, tastes, and smells of Little Dog’s life, each detail loaded with emotional resonance.
Colson Whitehead follows his Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad with The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, $24.95), which tells the story of the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform facility that operated during the last, violent gasps of the Jim Crow South. Based on actual, recent archaeological findings of remains of African American students at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s story shines a light on yet another institutional mechanism of racism and oppression. In a departure from his previous magical realism, here Whitehead is completely realistic as he follows Elwood Curtis, an idealistic, even naïve, young man on his way to college, as he gets in the wrong car at the wrong time and lands in the hell of the Nickel Academy, where segregated facilities ensure secret, brutal repercussions for the Black students. Along with his friend, Turner, Elwood investigates the school’s position within the larger community, discovering a history of bribery and corruption that has kept the place functioning.