As kids, Cam and TJ were more than best friends—more than brothers, even. After Cam’s parents died, TJ’s family took him into their Houston home and the two were inseparable. Now in their 20s, after a falling out, the two reenter each other’s orbits when Cam returns to Houston. Their meandering path to reconciliation is at the center of Family Meal, a moving new novel by Houston-born writer Bryan Washington (Lot, Memorial).
After the tragic death of his boyfriend, Kai, Cam flees Los Angeles for present-day Houston and gets a job at a gay bar. It’s there that TJ shows up one evening and the two see each other for the first time since their estrangement. Their initial interactions are tense and raw, with TJ calling out Cam’s self-destructive behaviors. (Cam, who’s haunted by Kai’s ghost, attempts to numb his pain with drugs, disordered eating and anonymous sex.) Though less perceptible than Cam’s issues, TJ is struggling in his own way, feeling stuck in a situationship with a closeted man who’s engaged to a woman and caught between wanting to stick around the bakery to help his mom or branch out independently for the first time.
In chapters narrated by Cam, TJ and, later, Kai, we learn about the two friends’ early explorations of their sexualities, TJ’s coming out to his now-deceased father and Kai’s death—and the role Cam thinks he played in it. Despite the primary focus being on the three protagonists, though, Washington’s side characters feel far from afterthoughts. Standouts include a quick-witted and polyamorous bakery employee and a bar owner struggling to stay afloat amidst a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
In sparse but affecting prose (some chapters are single sentences, and it’s worth noting that there are no quotations marks), Washington explores self-destruction and self-discovery, queer love, what it means to heal and the power of personal connection. “Some people set the key of their lives inside you and simply turn,” TJ notes. Family Meal is a tender and vulnerable meditation on the ways our loved ones change us, and how we change them in return.