By Ron Charles
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; C04
HOW TO READ THE AIR
By Dinaw Mengestu
305 pp. $25.95
The eerie calm in Dinaw Mengestu's new novel, "How to Read the Air," is almost never broken. There are flashes of violence -- a black eye, a broken lamp -- but those strikes interrupt an atmosphere of smothered despair. Named one of the New Yorker's best 20 writers under 40, Mengestu earned high praise for his 2007 debut, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," about a lonely Ethiopian working in Logan Circle, and his new novel concentrates that theme of alienation even further.
The story contradicts our most cherished cliches of immigrant progress: We expect the parents to work hard, trapped between countries and languages, saving their pennies and toiling at every opportunity, chagrined by their children's disregard for the old values, their easy integration with American culture. But Mengestu complicates that oft-told tale with a peculiar, psychologically perceptive story that makes one wonder how a country of immigrants could ever survive.
The narrator is 33-year-old Jonas, born and raised in the Midwest. His father escaped from Sudan in a box on a cargo ship; his mother came over three years later. Once reunited in America, they maintained a dreadfully unhappy, abusive relationship, haunted by the trauma of their pasts, and in the process created a new series of traumas for their son, who spent his youth "finding new ways of numbing myself so nothing my parents, or by extension the outside world, did could touch me." Jonas grew into adulthood feeling pessimistic, emotionally closed down and reflexively dishonest. And that dishonesty provides the fabric of the novel, as he slides from devious lies to excusable fabrications to deeply moving fictions.
The chapters alternate between the story of his three-year marriage to a young lawyer in New York and the story of the chilling honeymoon his parents took 30 years ago from Peoria, Ill., to Nashville. Uninformed, except for a few basic facts about their trip, and uninhibited about imagining his parents' thoughts and actions, Jonas lays out their drive as a series of punches, resentments and escape fantasies. "The fights grew out of their own organic, independent force," he writes, "obliged only to their own rules and standards."
Jonas has no interest in assigning blame or even judging his father, despicable as the man was, a paranoid brute whom Jonas and his mother hoped to escape in the way you'd want to escape a bad storm. Every detail of Jonas's behavior is relayed with the same dispassionate, factual voice, which provides a harrowing diagnosis of the symptoms of such a home: "At some early point in my life, while still living with my parents and their daily battles," he writes, "I had gone numb as a tactical strategy, perhaps at exactly the moment when we're supposed to be waking up to the world and stepping into our own."
Mengestu illustrates the crippling effects of that upbringing in the alternating chapters that take place in post-9/11 New York. Years of avoiding his father's wrath have trained Jonas in the art of invisibility, an ironic echo of Ralph Ellison's classic novel about a very different kind of black man in America. "I thought of my obscurity as being essential to my survival," Jonas writes. "Whoever can't see you can't hurt you."
Aimless and almost friendless 10 years after graduation, Jonas works a series of temp jobs before settling at an office that represents immigrants seeking legal status. His assignment is to help prepare the applicants' written testimonies about the abuse they suffered in their home countries. But he quickly begins exercising more editorial control: "I took half-page statements of a coarse and often brutal nature and supplied them with the details that made them real for the immigration officer who would someday be reading them. I took 'They came at night' and turned it into 'We had all gone to sleep for the evening, my wife, mother, and two children. All the fires in the village had already been put out, but there was a bright moon, and it was possible to see even in the darkness the shapes of all the houses. That's why they attacked that night.' "
He's good at this, and if he oversteps the truth now and then, well, it's for a worthy cause, right? What are more troubling, though, are the fabrications he begins telling about his own life. "History sometimes deserves a little revision," Jonas claims, with a nod to "The Great Gatsby." "I thought of this as a distinctly American trait -- this ability to unwind whatever ties supposedly bind you to the past and to invent new ones as you went along."
There's something slyly autobiographical going on here, of course: a young novelist making up a story about a young man who makes up stories. Mengestu is commenting on the life-giving properties of make-believe, as Jonas tries to save his parents, his job, his marriage with the drama and depth of his tales. He's a modern-day African American Scheherazade, striving to postpone the silence for just one more day. "If my fictional narratives lacked any veracity, it didn't really matter," Jonas claims. "I was making something of myself while I was still young, and even if that something was little more than an ever-growing lie, it was still something to which I could claim sole credit and responsibility. I was, however wrong it may have been, making a go of things."
By the end, "How to Read the Air" grows into a tragic and affecting paradox, a demonstration of the limits of fiction, the inability of stories to heal or preserve. And yet there it is, this novel -- wholly contrived -- offering up its wisdom about the immigrant experience with the kind of power mere facts couldn't convey.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/RonCharles.