A gritty urban Milwaukee neighborhood in 1989 hardly seems like a compelling locale for a rich and heartwarming coming-of-age story, but Pauls Toutonghi's debut novel will persuade skeptical readers they're dead wrong on that score.
Narrator Yuri Balodis is the 15-year-old son of Latvian immigrants who feels stifled and isolated on the eve of his junior year of high school. His father Rudolfi is an alcoholic country music fan who rides the bus to work as a night shift janitor at an automobile dealership. His submissive mother Mara, a library clerk, brings home books by the armload to feed Yuri's self-described reading addiction. Their gratitude for a life of freedom in America is tinged by sorrow at the political oppression that forced them to flee their home. Yuri's life takes a different turn when he meets Hannah Graham, the daughter of a socialist college professor, as she sells copies of the Socialist Worker outside an industrial plant. Yuri is more enamored of Hannah than he is of her political ideology, and his infatuation soon leads him to risk all in an impulsive act with near tragic consequences. The tale gains even more momentum when a quartet of Latvian cousins arrives in America on the heels of the Berlin Wall's collapse. They're in town to hear one of them present a series of college lectures, but Yuri soon suspects they have a much longer stay in mind. Even at this early stage of his career, Toutonghi's an accomplished prose craftsman who's won a Pushcart Prize and a Zoetrope: All Story contest. He is as adept at painting riotously comic scenes as he is at sketching tender portraits of intimate family relationships. But Toutonghi possesses a special gift for mapping out the emotional territory in which the battles between fathers and sons are fought, in this case to a loving truce. In the end, that's what gives this warm and generous novel its well-earned appeal.