Bryan Washington is an up-and-coming star in the literary world, enjoying remarkable plaudits, including winning the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2019 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
The story we’re analysing in this article is set in Katy, Texas, where Washington himself grew up. It’s an incredibly compact story, demonstrating a mastery of literary techniques, as both the narrator and the reader discover more about the relationship with Noah, the story’s second main character.
Here, we break the story down into four sections: opening, middle, conflict and denouement, considering the impact they have on one another and the literary choices Washington makes.
If you haven’t read ‘Katy’ yet, you can do so for free by clicking on the link here.
In one of our Toolbox articles – ‘Starting at the beginning. How the best writers open their stories’ – we discussed the importance of introductions in fiction. It’s the first point of contact between reader and author. The writer’s chance to both introduce their fictional universe and grab the reader’s attention.
As we know, though, this is a difficult task. It’s a balancing act, where the writer needs to deliver both exposition and intrigue in a succinct manner.
‘Katy’ is a great example of a writer nailing their intro. The opening part, leading right up to the first section break, contains plenty of exposition to familiarise the reader with the story, plus a good deal of intrigue to keep us wondering what’s coming next.
We’re introduced to the story’s tone of voice, as well as its characters: the narrator, Noah and Noah’s mother, Lynne. We learn that the narrator has come back to Katy, at the bequest of Noah, to help reopen the family bakery, which has been closed for some time. We also learn that Noah and the narrator don’t exactly enjoy a warm friendship with one another. They haven’t spoken in years, even by text, and when the narrator pulls into the parking lot, Noah steps ‘on to the driveway, huffing and puffing, in his usual way, grabbing at the lock of my trunk and asking why my bags were so fucking heavy because where the hell did I think I was going.’ This isn’t the friendly welcome our narrator might expect after a twelve-hour drive.
Of course, at this stage, we readers are left with far more questions than answers, notably about Noah and the narrator’s relationship. They must be close (why else would Noah be asking the narrator to come help with the bakery?) but something’s happened. What, why and when? If you asked yourself these questions after reading the first section of ‘Katy’, then it means Washington has done his job in opening the story. Next, he needs to go about answering those questions, all the while building up the tension as the story progresses.
As seasoned fetish literature readers will know by now, every story – short or long – will arrive at a moment of conflict, where the tension has built to bursting point, where the characters stand off against each other. Typically, the main moment of conflict (sometimes known as the Showdown) will occur toward the end of the story, and ‘Katy’ is no different. So how does a writer build the tension to the point where the conflict is sufficiently powerful and compelling for a reader?
In the example of ‘Katy’, Washington has already planted the seeds in his introduction. The obvious tension between Noah and the narrator leaves an unresolved feeling hanging over the story, which Washington continues to tease out as the story progresses.
In fact, in just the second section, Washington reveals the first potential origin of animosity between the pair.
Noah’s father, a young-ish Korean guy, taught me all about its creases, and the way it moulded to your palm. He taught me to trust my hands. He’d come from a family of bread-makers, and his wife – a black woman from San Diego – had grown up in a bakery. So when they told me I was pretty good at kneading loaves beside Noah, I believed them. And when Noah’s father called me better than his son, enough that I ought to start thinking about apprenticing when I graduated, I didn’t say anything about it.
Noah’s father’s comments don’t just create a sense of competition between his son and the narrator – they go on to have an impact on their future relationship, too. While the narrator leaves Katy for bigger and better things (‘I bounced from LA to New Orleans to Vancouver to Brooklyn’), Noah stays in the hope of winning over his father. Is this the resentment that we readers sense between the two? It’s too early in the story to know for sure, but it’s a good start in painting a picture of their long and strained friendship.
Let’s move on to narrative structure, as it’s one of the great devices used in ‘Katy’. The narrator’s telling of the story alternates between more distant memories around childhood and adolescence, to the more immediate present – the build up to the bakery’s reopening. After reminiscing about making bread with Noah’s father, the narrator brings the reader back to the story at hand, with a minor moment of conflict between Noah and the narrator.
When it came time to work through recipes, the feel of dough felt familiar in my palms, but still a bit distant, and I found myself turning to Noah, watching after his gestures. He’d gotten better, clearly. And more comfortable with his hands. Eventually, he looked up to find me staring.
Is there something on my face, he said.
A smile would be nice, I said.
Noah grimaced, layering pastry after pastry with precision. He stopped to take a break, briefly, and then he started again.
This isn’t their big showdown moment; rather, it’s a prelude of what’s to come. It further entrenches the feeling of conflict between the two, without actually resolving the ever-building tension.
Is Noah’s grimace and grumpy attitude really just because of a cruel comment made by his father way back when? It seems unfair and hardly paints Noah in a good light. At this stage, we, the reader, are probably siding with the narrator. After all, they’re the one who’s travelled twelve hours to help out his old friend, who hasn’t even bothered to say thank you. However, there’s plenty of story left to tell, and given that Noah and the narrator’s relationship is one the principal themes, we can bet that there will be more twists and turns as we move on.
We’d driven out to the football fields – for silence, for space – and I’d just started nodding off when I opened my eyes to find Noah leaning over to put his face on mine.
I kissed him back, hardly serious – and then very serious – before I pulled away. And then Noah laughed, a little manically, and I did, too, rocking the passenger side – until, at some point, we were both gasping, grabbing at our seatbelts, entirely delirious.
In just the next section we uncover a further dimension to Noah and the narrator’s relationship. A romantic encounter. Washington is deliberately vague about telling us exactly when it happened, and also whether it ever recurred. (Don’t forget, the story still hasn’t reached a level of maturity where we’re ready for a showdown or reveal.) Instead, we’re continuing to inch forward, step by step, gathering more and more evidence as we go.
We now know that the bitterness Noah feels toward the narrator could come from the way his father treated him, a feeling of abandonment, unrequited romantic feelings, a mixture of all of the above, or something completely different! Yes, we’re narrowing the gap, but the number of possibilities is still plenty.
As we approach the big moment of conflict between Noah and the narrator, we start to see signs that their relationship is developing – even thawing – a little.
Staring at the building from across the street, Lynne tilted her head, and asked if we couldn’t hand paint our own sign. Noah called that too much of a hassle – and when I agreed, he laughed – but Lynne shook her head at both of us. She said there was no point in doing things halfway.
So, while she looked on, Noah and I painted. Lynne stood beside us, tilting her head one way and then the other. At some point, she said it looked finished, and that it looked beautiful, and we agreed with her that it did.
We wouldn’t have expected this level of camaraderie earlier in the story, when Noah couldn’t muster more than a couple of words in the direction of our narrator. Now, they’re laughing together, painting a sign. Does this mean that the conflict has already been and gone? Have we reached the resolution already? Hardly, because it wouldn’t be much of a story if we stopped here.
Before we arrive at the main moment of conflict between our two characters, the narrator has one more revelation for us, one that tees up what follows perfectly. As the narrative bounces back to a previous time, before the narrator has returned to Katy to help with the reopening of his friend’s family bakery, they reveal a defining moment in their relationship with Noah.
When Noah broke up with his boyfriend, I was living with someone else. He only told me that there were some things they couldn’t get over. That was it. And this was my chance to be warm, the same as he’d been for me, and I knew that. But I wasn’t. I asked Noah what he’d done wrong. I asked why he was so fucking difficult. And I could feel Noah nodding on the other side of the phone, and I felt better than him, more experienced, like an absolute fucking asshole, and then my new man left me, too, and I came calling for Noah, but by then he’d stopped answering his phone, he was taking care of his father, I could hardly get him on the line.
Is this the moment that Noah and the narrator’s relationship truly fractured? Possibly. Although, in all likelihood, it’s the result of years of stress on their friendship, unspoken feelings, geographical and emotional distance. In the context of the story, though, there is something even more important at play here. Something that defines the end of the middle section, preparing us for the big conflict and final denouement. It’s the narrator’s evolution as a character, one who has come to realise that they, too, played a big part in the dissolution of the friendship.
The countdown to the reopening of the bakery is a subtle, but neat device utilised by Washington throughout this story. Of course, it grounds us, the reader, in the story’s timeline, but also ticks down the clock until the inevitable conflict arrives. During the opening section, we know that the reopening is happening at some undetermined future date; by the fifth section, we know that the opening is a week away; and now, during the seventh section, the showdown between Noah and the narrator, we’re on the eve of the reopening. Tension is at boiling point. Stakes are high. The perfect settings for conflict.
It’s gone midnight, and Noah and the narrator decide to take a drive, and with a daring directness, Washington delivers (via Noah) the question that has been hanging over the story since the opening paragraph.
Reaching into the bag between us, Noah said, I really didn’t think you’d come back.
Well, I said, you were wrong.
I would’ve lost money on it.
Good thing you’re no gambler.
What do we think of this as the major moment of conflict in the story? Does it live up to the build up? Does it deliver on the expectations set out by Washington in the opening? I would argue yes. There are plenty of different types of conflict we see in fiction. In Hemingway’s ‘Hills like white elephants’, for instance, the conflict is manifested as high-octane, desperate shouting. In Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of maladies’, the conflict is countered and diffused by the story’s big twist. Some fiction may even use physical violence to emphasise the moment of conflict.
The conflict in ‘Katy’ exists on the other side of the spectrum. It’s subtle and understated. And, in my opinion, it doesn’t require a fiery showdown. Such escalation would be out of place in this delicate story, which is why I think it’s well written. Neither Noah nor the narrator betrays what we’ve come to expect from them so far as characters, and yet the story still delivers on what it set out to: we better understand the relationship between the two of them, their history, and why it has been, is and probably always will be strained.
Finally, we come to the bakery’s opening. It’s the material event that the entire story has been building up toward, and it comes with ‘the first snow Houston had seen in years’. It’s an anticlimax, ‘the sort of thing that we’d thought would kill our turn-out’, as the narrator puts it. The main conflict has already been and gone. Now, it’s about the aftermath. What does the narrator and Noah’s relationship look like once they’ve aired their grievances?
I was entirely occupied at the register, while Lynne handled our guests. Noah walked baggies out to tables, jogging laps around the kitchen. He and I hardly spoke, but it didn’t exactly feel uncomfortable: if anything, it was familiar. We were working together again. In tandem, despite everything. It wasn’t that we weren’t speaking to each other, there just wasn’t anything to say.
This is exactly what we might have come to expect considering the semi-cathartic nature of the previous scene. It’s familiar, cordial, but not exactly brimming with the new shoots of a revived friendship. Noah and the narrator have realised their differences, found peace with one another – but for now, that’s about it.
As for the denouement of this analysis, let’s consider whether Washington delivered on the promises he set out in the opening section. As we saw previously, there are two main plot points happening in tandem in ‘Katy’: the opening of the bakery and the question over the narrator and Noah’s friendship. Does the story respond to both of these threads? I would argue yes. The bakery is opened and, more importantly, we understand the animosity between Noah and the narrator – an animosity that is partially resolved. For me, Washington has achieved what he set out to do in this story. There are no loose ends. It feels complete, without betraying what we’ve come to understand about our characters.
As we always do in long-form fetish articles, let’s imagine some alternate literary scenarios for ‘Katy’ and consider the impact they would have on the plot.
‘Katy’ is told from the first person PoV of the narrator. We learn about Noah through their perspective, and as the story evolves, both the narrator and reader better understand the tension that exists between the two friends. But what if the story were told from Noah’s perspective? How would the story’s narrative play out then? Would we know from the off why Noah resents the narrator? If not, how would it be teased out? And how would the moment of conflict unfold differently?
As we’ve seen, the confrontation between the narrator and Noah is an understated one. It’s subtle, soft and delicate. For me, it matches the tone of the story well. But let’s imagine that Wahsinton wrote a more explosive ending. How else might he escalate the tension in the showdown between Noah and the narrator?
‘Katy’ is a short story, at just around two-thousand words. And even though there’s a vast backstory among the characters, it feels like a complete and well-contained piece of fiction. But what if this were just the beginning? What if this were the opening chapter of a novel, which explored the future of the narrator and Noah’s relationship in more detail? Where would the story take us? What new levels of conflict could the characters experience together?