On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter written by a man called Little Dog to his mother named Rose. Little Dog states explicitly the purpose of his writing—he wants to go back in time, like to the time at the Virginia rest stop when Rose was shocked to see the taxidermy deer head hanging on the wall between the bathrooms. Rose couldn’t understand why anyone would want to display and preserve death in such a way. Little Dog is also writing his letter to his mother to “break free,” like the monarch butterflies that fly south every year.
The novel proceeds with a series of vignettes. Little Dog remembers when he was a boy, just five or six years old, and he hid behind a door in the hallway to prank his mother. He jumped out at her while shouting “Boom!” and Rose grabbed her chest, screaming, her face twisted in fear and pain. Little Dog attributes her reaction to her trauma from the Vietnam War. Rose grew up during the Vietnam War. It is not clear who her real father is because her mother Lan had to work as a prostitute to survive after escaping an arranged marriage.
He remembers the first time Rose hit him at just four years old in their small Connecticut apartment.
Both Lan and Rose are traumatized by the war. At five years old, Rose watched as her schoolhouse in Vietnam was burned to the ground after an American napalm raid. Rose never returned to school and she never learned to read, which is why she is illiterate.
Little Dog decides to write his letter after re-reading Roland Barthes’ examination of his own mother after her death. The central difference, though, is that Little Dog is writing while his mother is still alive; yet the overarching paradox of the novel is that Rose cannot read so the letter will never reach her anyway.
Little Dog remembers the time Rose rode a roller-coaster with him at Six Flags, only to throw up afterward in a garbage can.
He also remembers Rose trying on a fancy dress at Goodwill, one she likely wouldn’t have reason to wear, and she asked “Do I look like a real American?” She bought the dress anyway.
He remembers Rose in the kitchen with a knife, quietly telling him to get out.
Little Dog is now 28 years old and stands five feet, four inches tall, and he is writing to Rose because there is nothing else he can do but try to write to her. Little Dog remembers reassuring his mother that she wasn’t a monster, but now writes that he was lying. The way Little Dog sees it, a monster isn’t such a bad thing to be. At school, the kids called him “freak, fairy, fag,” and those words, Little Dog points out, are also iterations of a kind of monstrosity.
Little Dog once read that those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to abuse their children, and Rose was, and is, coping with her own trauma.
Little Dog had explained in an earlier draft of his letter how he became a writer, but he has since deleted it. It doesn’t matter how Little Dog came to write his letter—what matters is the letter.
Little Dog claims that trauma affects more than just the mind: the body also collapses under the stress. Little Dog’s describes his grandmother Lan as nearly bent in half. Lan was forced to work as a prostitute to survive during the Vietnam War. There is so much Little Dog wants to tell his mother in his letter, but much of it is lost behind syntax and semantics.
After emigrating to the U.S., Rose marries an abusive man but they later separate. She works in a nail salon and lives in Hartford, Connecticut with Lan, her sister Mai, and Little Dog. One day at the nail salon, Rose has a client who is an older woman and wants a pedicure. Before Rose’s client lowers her feet into the heated foot spa, she reaches down and detaches a prosthetic leg at her knee. After Rose massages the woman’s calf, the client motions toward her missing leg. Rose says nothing and begins massaging the woman’s missing leg, the muscle memory of Rose’s arms working the phantom limb, her movements outlining what isn’t there. Rose dries the woman’s foot, and then she hands Rose a $100 bill.
At the age of 14, Little Dog works on a tobacco farm, where he meets a boy named Trevor, who is a year older than him. One evening, while listening to a football game on the radio, Little Dog and Trevor initiate an intimate relationship. Soon after, Trevor develops a drug addiction. Trevor lives with his father, who is an alcoholic, in a trailer, and Trevor’s room is littered with marijuana seeds and fentanyl patches. It is impossible for Little Dog to talk about Trevor without talking about OxyContin and cocaine. Their relationship is intense but it does not last long because Trevor struggles with internalized homophobia.
Five years after meeting Little Dog, Trevor dies from overdosing, while Little Dog works in New York City as a writer. Little Dog leaves for Hartford immediately, and upon arriving, he heads toward Trevor’s house, but stops because he knows he'll just disturb Trevor's grieving father. Little Dog goes home instead, and it is after midnight when Little Dog opens the door to his mother’s room. He lays next to her on the mat on the floor and cries.
Seven months later, Little Dog stands next to Lan’s bed as she is dying. She has been diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer and has just a few days to live. Sitting near Lan in her final days, Little Dog thinks of Trevor. And after Lan’s death, Little Dog and Rose take her ashes back to Vietnam for burial. While near Lan’s village of Go Cong, Little Dog wakes in the night to the sounds of music and laughter. He goes outside and finds the streets alive with celebration, with a stage in the distance where drag performers sing and dance. The novel concludes with Little Dog remembering a conversation he had with Rose, and she laughs at the end of it, and Little Dog doesn't understand why.