On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a famous book that has received substantial acclaim and recognition, especially for the beauty and emotional resonance of its prose. The book is written primarily in the first person as a letter to the author's mother, from an openly gay man who has been nicknamed Little Dog. The two have a complicated relationship, and the book documents the difficult life the two spent together as well as the how the war-torn country of Vietnam has impacted the author's mother as well as her mother (Little Dog's grandmother).
I finally read this book because it was under consideration to be selected as a community read. Very early in the book it becomes clear that the themes of the book are very adult and that it includes scenes and depictions of events that might be triggering to some readers who have experienced various kinds of trauma. For example, the son describes multiple times that he is physically assaulted by his mother, and punished in multiple ways that seem disproportionate for the infraction he may have committed. Little Dog also describes racist incidents that happen to him and his family members in Hartford, Connecticut where they live when he was young. It becomes clear that the traumas that his mother (Rose) and grandmother (Lan) have had a deleterious effect on their mental health.
One key plot thread of the book involves Little Dog's relationship with a local white kid named Trevor. When Little Dog is 15 and Trevor is 17 they meet working on a tobacco farm in rural Connecticut. They are the two youngest employees and thus they start hanging out together. Eventually they both realize that there's an attraction to each other, and though Trevor never articulates being gay, but the two boys have intimate sexual contact multiple times for the next several years. This section of the book was one of the highlights for me, but this is primarily because it depicts a realistic and rarely-viewed slice of gay life. Soon after they meet it becomes clear that Trevor is a fan of using various drugs, from alcohol, pot, cocaine and eventually heroin. Drug use was not a stranger to Little Dog, as several of his neighbors in his rough Hartford neighborhood had died of overdoses. So after Little Dog leaves Hartford and goes to New York for college it's sad but not surprising that we learn that Trevor has died as well.
Overall, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an engaging, troubling and memorable book. It's true that the writing is incredibly evocative (this is Vuong's first book of fiction after becoming celebrated as a poet). The intersection(s) between the identities of Little Dog and of Ocean Vuong make it seem like the book is thinly-veiled biography, and this gives the work an extra frisson as well. In the end, though, I can't say I particularly enjoyed the book, although I am glad that I did read it.
Title: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.
Author: Ocean Vuong.
Format: 256 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Press.
Date Published: June 4, 2019.
Date Read: April 20, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).