A boy sings the blues over a girl who's just too red
Can the son of Latvian immigrants find happiness with a socialist's daughter?
You really have to pity Yuri Balodis. In addition to all the normal trials of teenagedom (a skinny, unimpressive body; a sprinkling of pimples; and a girl who likes him fine until he starts liking her too well), he's saddled with a pair of well-meaning but embarrassingly ethnic immigrant parents and a last name that means "pigeon" in Latvian.
Add to that the fact that the Balodis live squeezed into a decaying, low-rent apartment in downtown Milwaukee. ("There was no fame magically coursing through my city's rusted water pipes," Yuri writes sadly of the city in which his parents landed after fleeing the Soviet Union.)
So begins the tale of Yuri's adolescent woes, cleverly chronicled in Red Weather, a debut novel for Pauls Toutonghi (son of an Egyptian father and a Latvian mother, and also a first-generation American.)
All teenagers may find first love tough but Yuri's unrequited passion is complicated by an ideological twist. Hannah Graham, the object of his affections (a girl with hair "on the brink of exploding" and "honest, proletarian teeth") is the daughter of a woolly-brained university professor who is also an ardent socialist.
It's 1989 and communism is about to collapse but, ever since touring the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Professor Graham has yearned for the day when all bourgeois American professionals will be required to work in tractor factories.
The good professor has transmitted his political passions to his daughter and this sits poorly with Yuri's loving but overwhelming parents, Rudolphs and Mara. (Particularly so Rudolphs, who did time and even lost a few fingers in a Siberian prison camp.) They have little patience for the brainy Grahams and their attempts to illuminate for Yuri the positive aspects of the Soviet system.
Yet as much as the Balodis parents want their son to be a true American, their very existence burdens him with uncomfortable ethnic baggage. Mara bakes horseradish cookies. Rudolphs (who calls his son "my darling") drinks too much.
Both speak formal and heavily accented English ("Someday I would gently convince him that there was nothing wrong with the apostrophe," Yuri thinks ruefully as he listens to his father speak), and both punctuate almost all their remarks with the phrase "in my opinion" (a direct translation from Russian which, Yuri notes, hangs on the end of their sentences "like a passive-aggressive pit bull.")
But Yuri loves his mom and dad and feels a typical teenager's ambivalence as to where his loyalties lie. His parents embarrass him, but at the same time he can't help but notice that his new socialist friends are, for the most part, just pudgy folk in glasses and T-shirts. ("A few of them did seem slightly unshaven - but would this be enough to inspire violent rebellion?" Yuri wonders.)
Further confusing it all is the unexpected arrival of relatives from Latvia. Yuri's cousin Eriks, who plays in a Latvian band called "Volcano of Love" and can flick his cigarette butt to the ground in a dazzling arc of ember, has all the nonchalant East-Euro chic that Yuri seems to lack.
If this tale of befuddled ethnicity sounds as if it could veer dangerously toward sitcom-style wackiness, fear not. Toutonghi excels at a dry, sly wit that packs a soft, droll punch. His characters have dimension and they even manage to gently convey some of the confusion and displacement of the immigrant experience.
Where "Red Weather" does fall short is in its "action" scenes. The desperate measures Yuri adopts to impress Hannah - and on which the novel's plot turns - are out of line with his character and there is at least one scene that feels gratuitously grafted on in fear that the quiet, cerebral Yuri might otherwise seem just a bit too dull.
But if you can overlook a plot that is too often a creaky vehicle, "Red Weather" is a sweet and entertaining read. It could perhaps be described as the chick-lit rewrite of a Latvian-American version of "Catcher in the Rye" - a combination as offbeat and earnestly comic as the Balodis themselves.
• Marjorie Kehe, is the Monitor's book editor.Send your comments here.