I’ve been a voracious reader as far back as I can remember. In second grade, I read the entire Black Stallion series by Walter Farley twice through and regretted the ending of every installment—all eighteen of them—two times over, wishing I could remain in the exciting world of fiction indefinitely. This feeling has repeated itself so many times since I could not count the number. My voracity, though, had a price.
I always chose story over literary magnitude. I was a not a reading snob. I read The Goonies in seventh grade—War and Peace it was not, though I read that when I was nineteen and could not tell you a damn thing about it. I had no interest in careful, critical assessment. If I didn’t understand a word, I blazed past it. If prose got boring, I went on autopilot until the story resumed my desired level of interest. As I’ve aged, my need and desire for heightened literary merit has increased, as has my ability to critically assess better what I’m reading. However, when I come across a novel with an arcane tilt, where what is written is as important as what is not, I immediately worry that the reading habits of my youth created blind spots in my ability to understand concepts foreign to my knowledge base.
So I come to Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, The Parking Lot Attendant. There’s an edge to her writing that made me wonder if, when, how, everything was going to implode. The novel opens on “the island of B-,” where a group of idealistic nonnatives have formed a commune as a potential jumping-off point for something larger. The young narrator and her father are newly arrived on the island and aren’t doing a good job of adapting to life with the Danga, the self-titled name for the commune members. Once I was sufficiently unsettled by the narrator’s take on her current situation, she jumps back in time to her old life in Boston with her father and how it led to her present situation.
The narrator’s teenage years in Boston center on a respected, and feared, Ethiopian Svengali named Ayale who appears to be using his position as a parking lot attendant to oversee multiple illicit activities. With Lolitaesque undertones, the narrator’s relationship with Ayale slowly morphs from an innocent connection between an underage girl and an older man apparently filling in the emotional bare spots of her relationship with her father into something more sinister and foreboding, carrying the narrator into a world she could neither imagine nor believe existed until she finds herself at the center of the hurricane.
Much of the magic in Tamirat’s writing lies in the subtext: how she plants a seed of direction without defining every moment of action, and thus forcing me to wonder when the action was going to take a distinctly nefarious turn. I finished the book a couple weeks ago and I’m still considering the narrator’s fate—what happened to her, what she should have done differently, whether I’m comfortable with the denouement. And therein lies the beauty of Tamirat’s writing: creating the need to ponder, digest, struggle with a fictional reality that is a little too close to the reality of our world.