A run-down section of Milwaukee, as well as the fall of communism, provide the backdrop for this coming-of-age novel.
There’s a fine novella somewhere inside Toutonghi’s debut, which focuses on five months in the life of the Balodis family during the fall and winter of 1989. That’s the season when the Berlin Wall began to topple and eventually fell, but 16-year-old Yuri, bright and bookish, is more worried about life on the homefront. His father, an alcoholic with an unusual affinity for old-time country crooners, eagerly anticipates a visit from his cousin Ivan from his native Latvia, but when Ivan arrives, he’s accompanied by his wife, son and mother-in-law, crowding an already cramped apartment. Yuri’s biggest concern, though, is his growing crush on classmate Hannah, a would-be destroyer of the bourgeoisie who sells the Socialist Worker in front of a produce warehouse. The collision of ideologies between Yuri’s and Hannah’s families generates some tension, and Toutonghi makes room for some well-turned stories about the brutality of life in Latvia under Soviet rule. But the plot centers mainly on a relatively humdrum youthful indiscretion on Yuri’s part, involving a car borrowed from the dealership where his father works; alcohol; and Hannah, who proves a willing partner—it’s a crisis with little more heft than a TV teen dramedy. The author is more adept with character sketches: Eriks, Yuri’s cousin, the engaging and easy-going would-be rock star; Hammond King, the retired blues organist who offers some romantic guidance; and not least Yuri’s father, who speaks in richly tangled English and is a compelling mix of generosity and self-destructiveness.
Toutonghi is an observant writer, but he stalks a demure middle ground, never offering outright humor or drama.