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.