The Parking Lot Attendant
January 2, 2019 11:50 AM - by Nafkote Tamirat - Subscribe

"A mesmerizing, indelible coming-of-age story about a girl in Boston's tightly-knit Ethiopian community who falls under the spell of a charismatic hustler out to change the world."
posted by mixedmetaphors (6 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I signed up to cover this for the 2019 Tournament of Books Club!

The book begins near the end, in a short section introducing us to an eighteen-year-old unnamed narrator who has moved with her father to join an island cult that doesn't really want them there. The second section is the bulk of the book, in which the narrator details the past couple years of her life, and how and why she falls in with Ayale, a supposedly charismatic parking lot attendant older than her father. The concluding section takes us back to the island, where the narrator finally discovers why she and her father are here on this island and what the cult dictates about their future.

My review, with spoilers:

My favorite thing about The Parking Lot Attendant was the narrator's voice; she's a precocious, pretentious teenager, narrating her angst in ways both clear-eyed and tongue-in-cheek, but with a steady thrum of neediness that leaves her vulnerable and frustratingly oblivious/in-denial about her situation. She's egotistical and self-conscious and self-deprecating. An early passage I liked, reflecting on her inability to do impressions: "I marvel at those who have made a living out of seamlessly appearing to be someone other than themselves. I haven't done a particularly bang-up job of being me, and if I can't manage that, it seems unlikely that I'll ever do better by taking on someone else. I suspect that on the whole, I am untalented at the art of existence."

And when she got so ridiculously teenage, as when she described her defiant but ineffective, empty attempt to hurt Ayale the way he's hurt her: "I waited a week so that Ayale would know how definitively furious I was; to let the fact that I wasn't a permanent fixture in his life sink in; to show him that not only could I leave but I might very well prefer it; to demonstrate that I, a person with a mind full to bursting with non-Ayale-related matters, when insulted, belittled, or threatened had a sense of self that was so healthy that I would, without question, abandon any who dared carry out psychological violence unto me. It would be stating the obvious to say that I wasn't a doormat because I lived my saturated-with-prospects existence in a way that was defiantly un-doormat-like: let those with eyes see." There was humor on the page and in the narrator's oblivious pretensions, and I liked that.

I also kinda liked the old-fashioned affects of the book: the unnamed narrator and the redacted name of the island nation and the elaborate chapter titles. It added to a sense of artifice, though, that never paid off, or that paid off in negative ways: I had a hard time "believing" in the realness of the characters or the situations. Like, my reaction to hearing about the death sentence imposed on the narrator, my reaction was basically, "lol what?" I didn't really "get" the characters--in particular, as much as I liked the narrator's voice, she and her life came across as inconsistent--and that was probably why the book didn't work for me.

I was a mismatched reader for this book, because while I do often like coming-of-age stories, I don't like teenage-girls-fall-under-the-spell-of-charismatic-older-men stories. And that is what this book is, what the narrator sees as her own story ("I sometimes wish I'd never met Ayale, but more often I think that meeting him was the first real thing that happened in my life. Perhaps I'm growing up, but the process is killing me."). This was especially frustrating when I couldn't for the life of me see the appeal of Ayale, no matter how much I tried to fit myself into the protagonist's contrived, father-figure-seeking shoes. Charisma didn't translate in this case (though I understand that's probably a huge challenge in a text in the first place). I found the content of the book mostly a slog, waiting for the narrator to wise up and understand that the conspiracy she was being drawn into was more than just overparking cars in a parking lot, not to mention understanding that a man three times her age does not think of her as an equal. Just sooooo much mopeyness about Ayale. (I am not the most generous reader for this sort of thing, so I hope it worked better for others!)

The book's quick blurb--"A mesmerizing, indelible coming-of-age story about a girl in Boston's tightly-knit Ethiopian community who falls under the spell of a charismatic hustler out to change the world"--overpromises the amount of energy in the middle section of the book. The "out to change the world" part interested me, but I felt that it had pretty minimal on-the-page presence, especially as the narrator remained ignorant of the political conspiracy growing around her, until it burst out from behind-the-scenes to be all consequences for the still-oblivious narrator.

There was interesting stuff here about community, as the narrator and her father are part of the Ethiopian-American immigrant/second-generation community, but on the outskirts of it, thanks to her misanthropic, loner father. At one point, the narrator observes, "Schools and summer camps are less about education and more about kicking off the idea of community, as a survival tactic, if nothing else. I don't mean that it isn't an important and in some ways rewarding thing, community, only that we sometimes focus so much on what it symbolizes that we forget about what it actively does for us in the present and literal world we occupy." Connected to this, the narrator has a thing about not appearing to be as ignorant as she is, and she ties that into the idea of belonging: she swallows questions, objections, and contradictions she witnesses because "[n]ot knowing means you don't belong." So it's easy to see how she's taken advantage of when she finds somewhere she wants to belong: Ayale's inner circle. Ayale's ideals (to the extent he reveals them to her, when he finally does) appeal to community, but it's still just used to manipulate her. Also interesting, if not a huge component of the book, was the cult (made of members of the Ethiopian diaspora), and that community especially in terms of its relationship with the native community of the island that was letting them stay there.

And a link: an interesting discussion between author Nafkote Tamirat and her editor, Caroline Zancan, about the book.

In terms of going head-to-head with another book in the TOB, I wouldn't discount the power of the narrator's wry, first-person voice, nor the enjoyment of an atypical story of an immigrant & second-gen community. It's a book that didn't come together for me, but it's certainly more sparky than other, more cohesive books.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 11:51 AM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot to mention how much I disliked how this book does its dialogue. Little attribution, and character actions are on separate lines from the corresponding dialogue the character speaks. I don't even know how to describe it. I usually don't care how dialogue gets written--I am fine with no quotation marks or italics or dashes or whatever--but I found this confusing and annoying. I'm sure there was a thematic point to it, but it went over my head.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 11:57 AM on January 2, 2019

Very nice and thorough review that clearly points out the strengths and weaknesses of the book for you, and what others might expect. I wasn't planning on reading this one, and I think that I would find the things you didn't like to be a distraction for me as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:21 PM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed this book up into the last island section. I just don't get why any of that has to happen. Any of the back story she's given on the island or anything that happens to her there.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:46 AM on January 15, 2019

I agree with tofu_crouton on the last section. I've never read a book that fell apart for me so quickly at the end. I feel like the story was strong enough without the island parts in the beginning & end.
posted by Jugwine at 6:55 AM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I finally finished this one today and agree with pretty much everything everyone has said already! An intriguing premise and setup, with interesting characters that I was eager to get to know, but ultimately unsatisfactory character development and a baffling ending. It really became a slog after awhile, and never really picked back up. Really nice review, mixedmetaphors!
posted by grette at 9:40 PM on February 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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