Few young writers are as lauded as Dinaw Mengestu, whose debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, an elegiac portrait of an immigrant grocer in Washington, D.C., has been compared to the work of Naipaul and Fitzgerald, named a New York Times notable book and awarded everything from the Guardian First Book Prize to the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35. This past July, The New Yorker named him one of the coveted “20 under 40” young writers to watch. It’s a tough act to follow, but with How to Read the Air, Mengestu has proven himself far more than a one-trick pony, delivering an epic story just as nuanced and perfectly crafted, though far broader and more complex even than the first.
How to Read the Air chronicles a trip from Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee—distinct only in how prosaic and particularly American it is—taken by two generations of a troubled family. The first is a rare vacation for immigrants Josef and his pregnant wife Mariam, who were virtually strangers when they married in war-torn Ethiopia and who endured unthinkable odds to reunite in America. Intended hopefully as a honeymoon, it ends in disaster, setting an ominous tone for the marriage. The second is taken 30 years later by their son, Jonas, who leaves his own broken marriage and fledgling career in New York after his father’s lonely death to retrace his parents’ ill-fated Midwestern journey. The narratives intersect seamlessly, communicating in a way that the family—wounded by violence, displacement and indifference—could never do on their own.
Much of American literature has been shaped by the immigrant experience, which makes Mengestu’s utterly fresh eye all the more remarkable. His prose is perfect, with an innate attention to detail and an astonishing ability to draw poignancy out of images literally as drab as a cardboard box. But perhaps most impressive is his creation of Jonas himself—at once somber, angry, exuberant and indifferent, he lends a fascinating voice to this masterful work and together with Mengestu’s first protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, continues to create a mesmerizing window into modern immigration.
Listen to a public radio interview with Dinaw Mengestu.