Sons And Other Flammable ObjectsBy Porochista Khakpour. 398 pages. $24. Grove Press.
In the opening scenes of Porochista Khakpour’s novel “Sons and Other Flammable Objects,” we meet the Adam family. The Adams fled their homeland, Iran, during the revolution, and now live in Southern California in an apartment complex called Eden Gardens. There, the father, Darius, begins a campaign to protect the local blue jays by belling the complex’s cats, provoking the perplexed irritation of his neighbors and the embarrassment of his son, Xerxes. Years later, when Darius visits his now grown son in his apartment in New York, Xerxes asks his father to explain the incident. Darius instead relates a different story, one from his childhood that has weighed on his conscience ever since, a story that also involves birds but in which he is abuser rather than savior. The story so shocks his son and shames Darius that the two resolve never to speak to each other again. What purports to be their final conversation, appropriately enough, concerns the allowable weight of carry-on baggage.
All of Khakpour’s strengths are on display here: punchy conversation, vivid detail, sharp humor. Surprising revelations (a child witnesses his father cheerfully and baldly lying to another adult) and startling bursts of violence are juxtaposed with dinners of Fruity Pebbles and other mundane details. Recurring themes make their first appearance in these early scenes: the present cowers in the shadow of the past, and communication, despite the constant talking, and thinking, and thinking about talking, remains nearly impossible. The rest of this first novel concerns the Adams’ estrangement, as Xerxes struggles to distance himself from his parents, his history and his ethnicity in order to forge his own identity. His parents struggle just as mightily to hold on to him, while also, in their own ways, making peace with the past.
In outline, the conflicts are familiar: father versus son, assimilation versus cultural allegiance. But Khakpour brings her characters vividly to life; their flaws and feints at intimacy feel poignantly real, and their journeys generate real suspense.
Xerxes’ mother, Laleh, is particularly engaging. Unlike her husband and son, who obsess over the pronunciation and portentous symbolism of their names, she chooses to change hers to the easier-to-pronounce, whimsical Lala – a foreshadowing of the way she shakes off years of passivity in the later parts of the book. The bulk of the novel unfolds during the months after Sept. 11, 2001. Khakpour’s writing is most vibrant in specific, active scenes, and she’s particularly successful in recreating the discombobulated funk of post-9/11 New York: the overheated panic on a stalled subway car (“This lack of information, this black nothing, this entrapment – they were entitled to more. He wanted to stand up and scream, What are we all doing here anyway?”); the paranoia in an anthrax-spooked post office; the frantic search for sex or companionship in “that season of paramedic partnerships”; the gas mask as a half-joking, half-serious Christmas present. In an effectively uncomfortable scene, two secondary characters discuss their Iranian friend, tossing around words like “towelhead.” It’s unclear, even to the characters themselves, where the self-aware ribbing ends and the genuine malice and suspicion begin.
Khakpour is so good in these scenes that it’s all the more frustrating when she resorts to abstraction or omission. Darius’s depression and Xerxes’ grievances become suddenly less absorbing whenever the focus shifts from external events to internal ramblings and rantings. The family members repeatedly refer to Iran as a “hell” or a “nightmare,” but aside from a few striking glimpses – like the image of the family standing on their patio, among their neighbors, scanning the night sky for antiaircraft missiles – we get little sense of their lives there or the circumstances of their escape.
There are tantalizing morsels of family history – “I used to consider becoming a ‘moobad,’ ” a Zoroastrian priest, Darius writes in a letter of reconciliation to his son; Lala casually mentions that her “parents met in the cafeteria of the Atomic Energy Corporation of Iran” – but they are never explored. Memory is the novel’s driving force; all the characters are struggling to escape it or to cope with it. So it’s curious that the actual substance of these memories is left so vague. Such vagueness makes it difficult to understand Xerxes’ intense rejection of Darius, and his terror when he finds himself unintentionally following in his father’s footsteps, both by planning a visit to Iran and by echoing his abusive domestic behavior. Late in the novel, Xerxes’ girlfriend, Suzanne, presses him for “more about his past, . . . his parents’ stories, their parents’ stories, tidbits of whatever memory, no matter how ugly or apocalyptic the refuse in his brain,” and though her demands are eventually satisfied, the reader’s are not.
Despite these elisions, Khakpour’s biting humor and acute cultural observations carry the book. Both are in evidence in a scene in which Lala, eager to forge a connection with a new black friend, begins telling him that the Iranian equivalent of Santa Claus is a festive fellow in blackface, to their growing mutual discomfort. And though Khakpour’s characters are somewhat over-burdened with symbolism, they are also imbued with a genuine humanity that wins our affection.
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