“Sometimes, when we were lucky, [we] would see the sun rise on our way home from the diner. However, what with air pollution and the sun growing reluctant to rise over this rapidly spreading wasteland of fitness centers, condos, and an ever-dwindling Chinatown, it was a rare thing.”
To call The Parking Lot Attendant a “coming of age” story seems impossibly reductive, but at heart, it can be nothing else. What it also is, is immersive, relevant, and utterly engrossing. This is a first effort from a fascinating artist determined to remind us that while easy answers may exist, they are fraught with a sort of peril to be avoided at all costs.
Nafkote Tamirat’s first novel is an exercise in expectation subversion, employing some of the best possible types of tonal dissonance in order to keep her readers off balance even as they find themselves attached to, even identifying with the characters. Most immediately, we notice that The Parking Lot Attendant is told in the first-person, and yet the narrator/protagonist comes off largely as a blank slate, someone who floats through her own world as things happen to her, rather than as the initiator of her own story. She participates in the story, but she never quite seems responsible for it, even as she experiences pain, loss, love, and ever so briefly, something like joy, all depending on her circumstances more so than her actions.
By giving her protagonist such passivity, Tamirat allows her readers to slide right into the eyes of that protagonist. The cognitive dissonance that so often comes with the first-person voice is avoided — it’s rare, in this novel, to be able to say “I would never do that.” By minimizing the actions of her protagonist, Tamirat never allows us the chance to disagree with those actions. What opens up, then, is our ability to identify with the feelings of that protagonist, because she absolutely does have feelings about these goings-on around her.
This is where the “coming of age” comes in. Apart from a brief prologue-esque chapter that starts the book in a time when most of the action has already happened, we are introduced to our narrator through a brief retelling of her life up to her teenage years. Raised through early childhood by her mother, and then adolescence by her father, we spend most of the novel with the thoughts of a teenage girl who has strength beyond her years, combined with something that could be defined as an abandonment, complex combined with the need for a consistent (and consistently caring) parental figure. She finds that in the parking lot attendant of the title, a charismatic figure who takes an immediate liking to her, and whom she attaches herself to in return, much to the chagrin of her father.
Such a description comes off as fairly rote; where Tamirat’s story diverts from cliché is in its endgame, a final act not just foreshadowed by the setting of the first chapter but expertly hinted at throughout. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, it is fairly astounding just how gracefully a very small, very personal story turns into something much bigger, yet is still rooted in the characters introduced and existing at heart as the story of one girl’s emotional journey.
Still, it is the small bits that stick with you, and this is Tamirat’s greatest accomplishment in The Parking Lot Attendant. All of the main characters are of Ethiopian heritage, but that nationality is but a small piece of who they are. The narrator’s father is fleshed-out and complex, poor with words and antisocial yet quick to jump to whatever he perceives as the right thing, handy with a toolbox but far from an engineer, at turns horrible and brilliant as a father. Ayalé, the parking lot attendant, is both funny and deathly serious, smart and naïve, kind and impossibly cruel. The city of Boston, the narrator’s unnamed high school, and the parking lot where Ayalé works are all prone to multiple “personalities” as well, each at turns the worst place in the world and the closest thing to “home” the narrator can find. That Tamirat is able to write all of this multifacetedness into a mere 200 or so pages and still leave room for plot speaks to two things: Her decision to severely limit the number of characters in the book was a good one, and that she is extremely talented at writing those characters as human, rather than as caricature.
There are a couple things that stand out through The Parking Lot Attendant that come off as “first novel” miscues. While the dialogue throughout is largely economical by design, it’s often difficult to tell who is speaking at any given point, especially by the eighth or ninth spoken line. It’s easy enough to pick up with multiple passes, but in a book that reads as gracefully as this one, those moments do get noticed. There are also a couple of moments toward the end of the book — when the climax is just gearing up — where things happen that the narrator was not present for. In and of itself this is not necessarily a problem, but when you go as long as this book goes with a running commentary on every little action, on the distinct sense that you are truly looking through someone’s eyes at a given story, getting a glimpse at the action outside the perspective of that someone is unusually distracting.
Truly, these are nitpicks. While they prevent the novel from being perfect, they don’t prevent it from being praise-worthy. The Parking Lot Attendant is an incredible first effort from an author well on her way to greatness. Her eye for detail is sharp; her ability to write humans, rather than simply characters, is incredible. It’s a credit to Tamirat that The Parking Lot Attendant comes off as the most realistic of realistic fiction, even as the events of the plot stretch the boundary of believability. It’s a book worth a very long look.