How to Read the Air
by Dinaw Mengestu
Reviewed by Peggy McMullen
On one "picture-perfect fall afternoon drenched in solid light and smoothed over by sporadic pollen-filled breezes," Yosef and Mariam Woldemariam set off on a belated honeymoon. Before they're even out of the driveway, however, it's clear this is no love-besotted road trip; trouble is brewing just under the bruised surface of their marriage.
In his new novel, How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu spools out the story of the Ethiopian immigrants -- who have spent most of the three years of their marriage separated by an ocean. Now they are trying to fit in to wedded life and America. It's a rough task, and Yosef reacts with bouts of anger that come coiling out of him in slaps and slugs at his young wife.
Their story is narrated, 30 years later, by their son, Jonas, who was born a few months after that trip, and the book pitches back and forth between his parents' lives and Jonas' own current journey.
"Six months before I left my wife, Angela, and began retracing my parents' route through the Midwest, my father passed away ...." Jonas begins. He's had little contact with his parents since he escaped the family for college. In the intervening years, he'd led a rootless, disengaged life until he lands a part-time job in a New York immigration center. That's where he discovers he has a talent for inventing lives and embellishing past injustices as part of the office routine to help refugees stay in this country.
His adeptness at lying, however, makes it hard to know the truth of Jonas' narration. He spins stories about his father to the English class he now teaches at an exclusive high school; he lies to his bosses, his wife, himself. As his parents have struggled to fit into a new language and culture, Jonas, too, seems uncertain how to find where he fits in.
Mengestu wrote about the immigrant experience in his first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a book that won him awards and critical praise. Born in Ethiopia in 1978, he and his mother and sister left the country in 1980 to join his father, who had fled two years earlier during the "Red Terror" that killed tens of thousands in the 1970s. The family landed in Peoria, Ill., the jumping-off point for How to Read the Air.
The story of Jonas adds another layer to Mengestu's writing, moving beyond the experience of a fresh immigrant into the disengagement of the next generation. Jonas grew up never really belonging, adrift from peers and family alike, keeping himself aloof to avoid the pain he sees in his parents' marriage. When Jonas tells the students about his father's violence-plagued road to freedom, he says one of the things that kept Yosef alive was his ability to read warnings in the air and duck in time to avoid a bullet or a street gang.
On his journey following his parents' long-ago trip, Jonas gets out and walks the shoulder of the road, stopping to test the air at key spots in the journey. Other travelers see him standing on the shoulder, peering out through the solid light of his own landscape, trying to read in the pollen-filled air his own shifting shape.