The Mysterious ‘Parking Lot Attendant’ at the Center of a Web of Intrigue
By Emily St. John Mandel May 4, 2018T
HE PARKING LOT ATTENDANT
By Nafkote Tamirat 225 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $26.
At the start of Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, “The Parking Lot Attendant,” the narrator — a 17-year-old girl who is never named — has recently arrived with her father on the remote subtropical island of B—, where they’ve found uneasy refuge in a commune. They’ve fled some unspecified trouble in Boston, but the trouble seems to have followed them. The girl is more or less a pariah. She’s miserable and ill at ease, which seems reasonable under the circumstances. The commune’s managerial arrangements can only be described as sinister.
The colonists, as they call themselves, live by rigid rules set out by a group of anonymous leaders. The only book allowed is the Bible, in Amharic. (Fortunately, the narrator is fluent; although she was born in the United States, her parents emigrated from Ethiopia.) The commune on B— is by no means a permanent settlement; the colonists are preparing for a move to a promised land in Africa. They live in limbo and in a state of ever-increasing tension.
From here, Tamirat takes us back to the narrator’s life in Boston. If the girl had friends before she met Ayale, the titular parking lot attendant, they’re not mentioned. Although she dabbled in theater, her focus on school was otherwise absolute. She was raised by her parents, but never both at the same time: Her father walked out while her mother was pregnant, and didn’t return for six years. When he reappeared, her mother promptly abandoned her, and after that the narrator grew up in her father’s basement apartment.
Her father is pensive by nature and uncomfortable around other people, and while there’s good will on both sides, his rapport with his daughter is far from effortless. Still, he tries. After an awkward encounter with an irritating new monk at their church, he starts skipping services in favor of a weekly brunch with his daughter, and their conversations over eggs and pancakes take on a deep importance to her: “Only at brunch could I see him as someone who would stay. At all other times, I prepared myself for his inevitable departure, after which there would be no more parents: I would be alone.”
In short, this is a girl who might find herself somewhat vulnerable to anyone offering some semblance of stability, particularly anyone who might pass as a backup father figure. At 15 she’s deemed old enough to get herself to and from school on her own, and this is when she encounters the parking lot attendant. Ayale is in his 30s or 40s, and seems to be the unofficial mayor of a tightknit Ethiopian-American community in Boston. She finds him magnetic, and she’s hardly alone; he seems to have attracted a group of parking lot attendant disciples. She begins dropping by the lot after school. He’s a mysterious figure. She and the other acolytes harbor a mild obsession with his origins. (“We knew that Ayale was not an only child because there had once been a sister: The barber at Egleston Square had some friends who sold injera out of the 7-Eleven in Jamaica Plain, who feuded with a man named Jerry, who had done her tax returns.”) Before long, she’s delivering packages for him, and a trap begins to close around her.
Tamirat has an excellent eye for the minor detail that becomes important in retrospect. Of Ayale, the narrator notes, “I was given to understand that he had a closet full of unworn elegance, all of it awaiting the day sartorial splendor would be required,” which isn’t chilling until much later, when the extent of his ambitions becomes clear. Tamirat is equally gifted at a strain of absurdism that’s delightfully reminiscent of both Kafka and Jonathan Lethem, as when the narrator finds herself being followed simultaneously by the Boston police and an informal force of informants who work for Ayale: “Ethiopians seemed to circle Americans, who seemed to circle Ethiopians, who seemed to circle Americans, ad infinitum, on my walks back and forth, to and from the bus stop, the convenience store, the laundromat. I wondered if it seemed to anyone else like our usually quiet street was now teeming with silent people, rigidly checking the time, window-shopping, craning their necks for the streetcar, debating between spicy wings and Subway.”
Tamirat is an extremely talented writer. Her prose is sharp, incisive and often very funny. There are dazzling passages. But as a novel, “The Parking Lot Attendant” suffers from an oddly under-edited quality. There are distracting incongruities throughout, sentences that work perfectly well on their own but serve to undermine aspects of character development or plot, and thus the overall cohesion of the novel.
This is the narrator at 16: “Around the same time, my father and I started getting used to each other and I joined a summer theater company, where I learned stage fighting.” Wait, the reader might be forgiven for thinking, you and your father started getting used to each other? Just now, when you’re 16? But you’ve been living with him since you were 6, and we’ve already established the friendly weekly brunch routine. Elsewhere, the narrator tells us that her father is set in his ways: “Any potential new tendency, foodstuff or pair of pants is deliberated over for weeks,” because he’s “a man of habit.” Is he, though? Because it seems as if he replaced church with brunch more or less on a whim. Before meeting Ayale, the narrator tells us, “I might have actually believed my parents and myself to be the only Ethiopians in the world.” It’s a poignant expression of isolation. It would make more sense if those church services — even though the narrator attended them infrequently — hadn’t been Ethiopian Orthodox.
We are reminded every so often that the Boston segments are in the past. In her uneasy exile on the island of B—, the narrator tells us that Ayale “remains the greatest man I’ll ever know, and unlike some, I’m not ashamed to say it.” But this future narration is coming from a point after the narrator’s interviews with the Boston Police Department reveal the strong possibility that her hero committed unspeakable crimes, and the near certainty that he plans to commit more in the future. “Sometimes,” the narrator concludes, “the best people are the worst for us to love.” The problem isn’t the sentiment, which rings perfectly true. (Who among us hasn’t fallen in love with the wrong person, at least once?) The problem is that by the time she’s looking back at Boston from the vantage point of the island of B—, the notion of Ayale being ranked among the “best people,” let alone the “greatest man,” is so disorienting that the sentence reads like a holdover from an earlier draft of the book.
Given the author’s obvious talent and the frequent brilliance of her prose, it’s frustrating to contemplate how much sharper this novel might have been with another round or two of editing. A compensation for readers is that Tamirat is at the beginning of her career, and there’s every reason to expect a truly dazzling body of work.Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, including, most recently, “Station Eleven.”
SOURCE : NEW YORK TIMES