Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Sons and Other Flammable Objects

A Novel

by Porochista Khakpour

“Punchy conversation, vivid detail, sharp humor . . . Khakpour brings her characters vividly to life; their flaws and feints at intimacy feel poignantly real, and their journeys generate real suspense. . . . Khakpour’s biting humor and acute cultural observations carry the book.” —Judy Budnitz, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date September 09, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4386-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date September 18, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1853-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $24.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date July 31, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4859-0
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

With rolling storytelling cadences and wry wit that recall Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, Porochista Khakpour, a young writer who emigrated to California from Tehran at age three, has delivered an extraordinary debut that marks her as a major and outrageously gifted new voice. Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a unique and powerful first novel, at once a comedy and a tragedy, a family history and a modern coming-of-age story with a distinctly timeless resonance.

Growing up, Xerxes Adam is painfully aware that he is different—with an understanding of his Iranian heritage that vacillates from typical teenage embarrassment to something so tragic it can barely be spoken. His father, Darius, dwells obsessively on his sense of exile, and fantasizes about a nonexistent daughter he can relate to better than his living son; Xerxes’s mother changes her name and tries to make friends; but neither of them offers their son anything he can actually use to make sense of the terrifying, violent last moments in a homeland he barely remembers. As he grows into manhood and moves to New York, his major goal in life is to completely separate from his parents, but when he meets a beautiful half-Iranian girl on the roof of his building after New York’s own terrifying and violent catastrophe strikes, it seems Iran will not let Xerxes go.

A wry and haunting first novel from a fresh Iranian-American writer, Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a sweeping, lyrical tale of suffering, redemption, and the role of memory and inheritance making peace with our worlds.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Punchy conversation, vivid detail, sharp humor . . . Khakpour brings her characters vividly to life; their flaws and feints at intimacy feel poignantly real, and their journeys generate real suspense. . . . Khakpour’s biting humor and acute cultural observations carry the book.” —Judy Budnitz, The New York Times Book Review

“[Khakpour] expertly captures the culture clash between generations of immigrant families as well as the questions about identity and home that are common themes in immigrant novels. She brings a fresh perspective and style to the genre, exploring themes of escape and being lost and found.” —Kathryn Masterson, The Chicago Tribune

“Both poignant and amusing . . . Again and again, Khakpour shows ways that odd pieces of the past govern our present lives more than we would like them to.” —Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] vital and engaging account of a family of Iranian-Americans following the September 11 attacks.” —Claire Messud, NYRBlog

“Entirely impressive . . . has its roots firmly planted in the tradition of the Western novel . . . it also gallops over fresh ground in its examination of personal and political trauma. . . . [Khakpour’s] strengths lie in plot lines, character development, and speech patterns. . . . a smart and sensitive novel.” —Jessica Candlin, Radar

“Exceptional . . . a strong debut . . . laugh-out-loud funny. Khakpour’s biting humor, delightfully knowing asides, and careful digging into the interior worlds of two equally stubborn men, give the novel and intelligence and a crisp charm that is welcome and quite unexpected. . . . Khakpour captures the haze and persistent fear that plagued New Yorkers—indeed, all Americans—in those difficult weeks and months after 9/11 in a way that few have captured to date. Her details are spot-on, the uncomfortable ‘what do we do now’ moments pitch-perfect.” —Callie Miller, The Quarterly Conversation

“Masterful . . . fresh . . . vividly imagined. . . . Khakpour’s style is certainly experimental . . . reading her work is like going joyriding down a rocky mountainside. She splits words open and looks for their multiplicity of meanings. She translates words and customs from the Farsi with both eerie and hilarious effects. It’s thrilling and demanding work, But Khakpour makes it all worth it.” —Mehdi Okasi, Sycamore Review

“Well executed . . . full-tilt and engrossing . . . Khakpour’s frequently hilarious novel focuses on a disintegrating Iranian family in post-September 11 America, but dodges the pitfalls that setup could entail. Her characters are victims not of xenophobia or ignorance but of their own weaknesses, and she deftly avoids disaster-bred pathos or epiphanies. . . . the real focus is on [the Adamses] stunted interactions: uncomfortably funny and absurd, with a hateful tenderness that can apply only to the miseries and loving constriction of knowing someone too well. Khakpour manages to bring freshness even to the trope of an immigrant’s butchery of American colloquialisms.” —Melissa Albert, Time Out Chicago

“A marvelous novel. Witty, wise, continually surprising, continually inventive, exuberant, heart-breaking. It resists the easy categories of immigrant lit, family saga, first novel—because it is, first and foremost, a delightful, generous work of literary art.” —Alice McDermott, author of Charming Billy

“Like the young Philip Roth, Porochista Khakpour uses lashing, dark humor tinged with deep melancholy to paint a wonderfully twisted portrait of family life. Xerxes Adam, the ‘son’ of the title, is a protagonist for our times: repulsed by his father and alienated from his motherland, he hides from his origins in the ashes of post-9/11 New York. This is a novel of searing intelligence.” —Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia

“Hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, gorgeous and mad, this novel is a brilliant and astonishing debut. And the story it tells is the best kind of story—where comedy and tragedy weave together mysteriously and yet organically, like a shifting in the play of light, like life itself.” —Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir! and I Love You More Than You Know

“Khakpour builds her luminously intelligent debut around the travails of an Iranian-American family caught in the feverish and paranoid currents immediately after 9/11. . . . Khakpour is an elegant writer, and she imparts a perfect sense of the ironies of being Persian in America.” —Publishers Weekly

Sons and Other Flammable Objects is one of those rare novels that makes you laugh and at the same time breaks your heart. It is a brilliant, insightful, and original portrait of an Iranian-American family, mother, father, son, all struggling, often crazily, to belong, to find meaning in their new home in America, to assert their identities. All the characters are memorable, lingering with you long after you finish the last page.” —Nahid Rachlin, author of Persian Girls and Jumping Over Fire

“While there is no shortage of fiction that deals with the subjects of racial and cultural identity, Khakpour’s first novel refuses to oversimplify these issues for the sake of a smoother narrative. An incredibly complex book, it acknowledges that navigating the demands of multiple cultures is anything but a tidy process.” —Library Journal

“Sometimes comic and sometimes poignant . . . Khakpour displays a barbed, appealing sensibility and a trenchant wit.” —Kirkus Reviews

Awards

A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
Winner of the California Book Award Silver Medal in First Fiction

Excerpt

Part One
The Birds and the Birds

Another in the long line of misunderstandings in their shared history, what caused Xerxes and Darius Adam to vow never to speak again, really began with a misplaced anecdote, specifically an incident that happened many years before in the summer of Xerxes’s twelfth year, known always in the Adam household as “the summer when Darius Adam began terrorizing the neighbors’ cats,” known privately to Xerxes’s future self as “the summer in which I realized something was very wrong with my father, something that would cause us to never have a normal father-son bond—the summer, years later, accidentally triggering the very last straw that would cause us to never communicate again.” Ever? “Well, wishful thinking, for starters.”

Los Angeles, 1987

Darius Adam began with kindness, kindness and some deception. He began by befriending them: Apartment #14’s tabby Tabitha, #3’s Pedro, #29’s BooBoo (neither Xerxes nor his father knew for sure if this was the cat’s actual name, hearing it only in the daily coos of Ms. Bialik or Ms. Bialock, whose name they weren’t sure of either), and the two nameless identical black kittens who belonged to either #11 or #13 or both, who traveled in pairs and answered to either one door or the other or both.

Gorbeh, being the Farsi word for cat, was what Darius Adam would resort to when all else failed: “Here, gorbeh, here, little pretty gorbeh, c’mon, now, damnit, gorbeh.” He lured the gorbehs with bowls of milk which rarely worked—he blamed it on Xerxes’s mother’s insistence on only buying skim, something that not only he disapproved of, but apparently the goddamn everyday cats did as well—and so he moved on to cheese singles, which worked for some, especially BooBoo. In the end, he actually began frying slices of liver, taking a few bites himself, playfully offering some to Xerxes—who replied with the children’s universal gag face, glad to see the household liver supply dwindle for this cause—and to his wife, to rile her up, for she found the investment a terrible waste, when for one week all we’ve had are leftovers, when I could only dream of liver, she’d claim, every day insisting she was going to make it that night’s meal. The cats responded to liver. And when the liver was done for good—because Xerxes’s mother eventually retaliated by ceasing to purchase liver altogether—they responded to cookies. It was soon discovered that the gorbehs had a thing for her favorite pecan-sandy cookies. It was as if before she could even attempt to draw the line, the very concept of lines had become obsolete. Everything was game.

One by one he lured them into their house. Xerxes’s mother was beside herself: Cats in the house—what’s next! It was almost as if the answer to that question was, Prostitutes—that’s what’s next! Xerxes thought to himself, imagining his father dangling fried meat at these forbidden for-sale women that he’d only just begun seeing in movies—attracting all sorts of crawling, purring, fishnetted, bed-headed women that smelled like a rumored musk he couldn’t imagine but assumed was the scent of sex, something furry and sweaty and sweet. But the cats tended to stay close to the door, as nothing about the depths of the Adams’ indoors interested any of them. Darius Adam would crouch to their level to negotiate with hands full of cookie crumbs, letting them timidly sniff and lick, and then with an urgency that Xerxes seldom heard in his father, he’d order Xerxes to bring him the bag. Xerxes begrudgingly would bring the canvas bag that was draped on his father’s armchair, next to the Basic Algebra textbooks and ungraded student papers, the piles Xerxes’s mother and Xerxes were never to touch—which Xerxes only once did and discovered a strange postcard with a paradisal sunset scene signed “Miss u—u best teacher man! Hugs&kiss, CeCe,” which taught him never ever to go there again. He cringed at the sound the bag made—something like a possessed tambourine girl—a strangely heavy bag overstuffed with an ambitious supply of bell-studded cat collars. Xerxes believed his father when he said, See, they made these for one reason and one reason only, and that is my reason: to save. These are not gorbeh presents, he reminded them—his mother immediately reaching in the bag for the receipt, moaning about the expense when she didn’t even have a winter coat, when her pumps were busted—this is a necessity, he’d declare. It was a necessity that he had to invest in, that he had been called on to invest in, he reminded them, because certainly if the neighbors were good cat owners, each and every one would have done this. But because they failed, someone had to. Xerxes knew what he meant although he took some unspoken objection with the had to; his mother didn’t understand at all and so she bit her tongue and instead did that more powerfully infuriating thing of head shaking all the way through his process. Madness, she would think. Don’t say a word, especially in the case of the word not being a nice word, his father would say, messing up the saying, perhaps purposely; he often botched his usually near-perfect English to make a point, Xerxes suspected, as if to say, Who cares about this bastard tongue? In any case, refraining from words-that-are-not-nice-ones—unless you were Darius Adam, that is—had become a family rule in their house of swallowed discontentment, of several future decades’ worth of ulcers.

I take then you two are happy living in a battlefield?
I take you like dodging daily carnage? Remind you of home?
Death all around you—I take you think that’s an acceptable sight?
Tell me, are you Adam or gorbeh?

Xerxes knew his father believed in a better good, that he was acting out of a certain humanitarian manifest destiny to institute right among all mammals of the modern domicile. He was trying to save. Save themselves in the end, via saving the spring’s batch of blue jays who had suddenly, in their cheery oblivious way, taken residence among the palms and oaks of their conflicted suburban California neighborhood, in particular in their apartment complex, “Eden Gardens,” as the sign read (to the embarrassment of Xerxes, who often found himself just shrugging when his teachers or friends or the others of the town’s home-owning gentry asked his address and wondered, “Oh, is that The Lanai? Or are you Tropical Terrace? Oh, Eden Gardens?”) The blue jays had come noticed by no one really, Xerxes was sure, except his father who would rush to their balcony, daily, and call out, Look! Look! Look! Look . . . blue jays. The birds would make lackluster eye contact, maybe they would chirp—Sing! Xerxes’s father insisted, they really do sing—and then they would be off with their manic flutter.

Happy-go-lucky idiots, Xerxes thought, dancing on a death trap like that, the fools. Because of all the apartment buildings, why theirs? Why at the only pets-welcome complex on the block? Eden Gardens’ expansive animal kingdom had no room for easily conquered fragile types—they already had the black potbellied pig on a leash belonging to the lanky Jesus-looking man that Xerxes’s mother and father knew only as The Drug Dealer, and who Xerxes, although usually ready to disagree with his folks, had concluded, to his own shock, was a drug dealer; the triplet collies belonging to Silent-Arts-and-Crafts-Lady; the ancient pit bull belonging to The Mexicans; the guinea pigs on leashes belonging to the Weird Old Chinese Man; the buck wild ferret mothered by The Sorority Girls; and a rumored monkey that no one ever saw (apparently a ringtail—”the not-in-jungle-type, you know, the type the crazies by the sea get, the collecting money kind, like with vests, with two chinking gold music-makers, you know—but without all that, you know,” claimed their building manager, a man they called The Pelican because of his unpronounceable Romanian name, and also because of his facial structure) . . . they had all walks of life, on every rung of the food chain, in Eden Gardens. But the gorbehs topped them all. They were the staple pet—everyone who didn’t have something more exciting, something more far-fetched, something more California-crazy, had cats, except the Adam family, who had . . . nothing.

We have a pet Xerxes! (Xerxes deeply resented his mother’s joke, from age seven, when he first comprehended its casual insult.) Animals anyway, she would growl, are dirty.

Says Allah and Allah only, his father would laugh. How ignorant your mother is.

What do you want from me? she would hiss. A horse, a donkey, a hippo, puppies, and rats everywhere?

Maybe something small, his father would say quietly, spookily, his gaze lost somewhere back in the spectacle of a stark boyhood dream, maybe even a bird.

Other than that Xerxes had never heard a word about birds—any interest in them, any fascination with, any desire to rescue, any sense of a mission for—not a single mention of them from Darius Adam. And then with the blue jays’ sudden arrival in May 1988 and their systematic serial slaughtering by June, birds suddenly became king. Dead gave their ends too much dignity, Xerxes thought, agreeing with his father that their aftermaths, the killers’ nonchalantly relinquished evidence, all made the cause more noble. The dead blue jays appeared splattered, flat, like ink-soaked envelopes, stamped and razzled and bludgeoned and sucked and maybe even left half-alive in some flatironing ritual of the grisly cats, who all killed the same—Unless it’s one killer, one bloodthirsty gorbeh, his father speculated at one point, but one is all it takes to spoil the bunch—like racism, the whole race suffers when one raceman wrongs. It was true. Xerxes especially felt his father’s pain, when he’d witness him coming home from work those evenings, suddenly less lazy-eyed and dazed from overwork, but instead disturbed and jittery at the doorway, rushing to wash his hands, then sniffing them, shuddering, biting his lip, looking downright rabid—those were the signs that his father had just discarded a dead one.

He did the deed only once in front of Xerxes, on the way to school one day, when Xerxes came within inches of a dead bird. “Stop!” yelled his dad, shoving him into a rosebush. Xerxes, furious, saved himself from mass-pricking and watched as his father yelled, “Don’t watch! Turn around! Run to the car!” His father meanwhile crouched down—as usual, totally unversed in child psychology, telling himself his child had done just as he’d said, looked away or left—and reached into his pocket and pulled out a ready plastic Baggie. To Xerxes’s horror, it was the same type of ziplock bag that his beef cutlet sandwich was always packed in. His father, by this point, was always ready for the recurrence of his waking nightmare with a few Baggies at all times in his pockets, plus a scooping instrument Xerxes also knew well, the plastic spoon—again, to Xerxes’s horror, the same make and model used for the shoveling of his pudding snacks, also in his lunch box. He watched, mesmerized, as his father directed the bag’s mouth open wide, sighed a few times, and with the trembling spoon, scooped the messy, bloody mass of feathers and disjointed bones into the bag. “Run, run!” his father yelled, when he finally discovered Xerxes spying behind him.

And Xerxes would run, as fast he could, past the car, past the Dumpster where his father would mutter some curse like an anti-prayer and drop off the anti-sacrifice, past the corner and all the way to the next street, where his school would be in sight about a half mile away, and then maybe all the way to the next corner, wishing there was a way to get lost, get really lost in his one and only hometown, or farther, always thinking bigger, frantically scheming until the honking and flashing lights of his father’s Dodge Omni hatchback would corner him at the curb, and he’d breathlessly, shamefully get into the car, both males silent and awkward, ashamed, of it, of that, and of everything between them or missing between them, until they’d get to his schoolhouse, grumble good-byes, until suddenly Xerxes was free to hop out, skip out in fact, suddenly relieved to see people other than his family and his world. He would go through the motions of the day, living for lunch, then at lunch give his lunch away or throw it away—whichever came easiest, whichever ensured not having to look inside at the Baggie and the spoon—and run with the spoils of his family’s laundry change in hand to the cafeteria counter for a crusty cold square of pizza and a warm can of Coke, like all the other kids.

Reading Group Guide

Prepared by Asad Raza

1. How does Darius Adam’s story of setting birds on fire as a boy in Iran affect you as a reader? Are you able to sympathize with his character, especially since you already know of the lengths to which he later goes to save birds from the cats of the Eden Gardens in L.A.? Does this later action rehabilitate him in your eyes? Or does his youthful sadism tell us something permanent about his inner self?

2. Throughout the novel, Xerxes expresses a powerful fear of “mixing worlds,” meaning his home life and the American outside world. Why is this? Is Xerxes ashamed of his family? Were you able to identify with his predicament?

3. Consider the novel’s portrait of contemporary Los Angeles. Despite its obvious multiculturalism, the Adams do not seem to socialize or mix worlds, at least until Lala Adam befriends Gigi and Marvin. But Los Angeles is also portrayed as at least superficially similar to Tehran: both are dusty metropoles in desert climates. How does the Los Angeles of the novel, a place without “central location,” relate to and express its characters’ identities?

4. One of the novel’s few glimpses of Iranians other than its main characters comes during Xerxes’s memory of attending a protest rally with his parents. Darius tells him that “these people are us!” but Xerxes identifies with the “others like [him]: clueless, numb, suddenly mute children, who. . . were were doomed to a counterfeit feeling, like uninvited ghosts, extras, like real people interrupting a world of Technicolor animation” (p. 129). Discuss this powerful passage and how it foreshadows Xerxes’s struggles with his identity, his father, and his relationship to Iran.

5. Father and son’s failure to communicate is a major theme of the novel. Discuss Suzanne’s attempts to get Xerxes to overcome that. What accounts for her successes and failures? Why does he react so violently to some of her initiatives? To what degree is she finally responsible for the novel’s climax, Xerxes’s speaking to Darius again?

6. Part Two, “Kingdoms,” recounts events from the lives of the main characters’ namesakes, the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes. How do these historic precursors match up to Darius and Xerxes Adam? Do they suggest that the novel’s protagonists lives are, in a way, predetermined? As Darius Adam says, “Son, I hate to tell you that bad fortune in life is often answered with more bad fortune” (p. 57). Or are modern-day Darius and Xerxes able to break with the past? And what difference does it make that Darius Adam is Xerxes’s narrator?

7. Suzanne’s parents express concerns about Xerxes possibly being a Muslim. Does their anxiety seem understandable or exaggerated? What kinds of conflicts do you think they fear? How does the novel’s setting in the aftermath of September 2001 complicate these matters, both for Suzanne’s family and for Xerxes?

8. Why do Gigi and Marvin feel such a strong need to stigmatize Lala after their friendship wanes—as Gigi puts it, “Girlfriend Bitch was head-to-toe bullshit” (p. 228). Does this seem realistic? How does Lala’s being Iranian matter to this rejection? And how does Marvin’s final attempt to engage Darius inflect the angry earlier scene?

9. Darius chooses to write a letter to the estranged Xerxes on “stationery from a Zoroastrian temple” imprinted with the motto “Eternal Flame” (p. 158). What is the importance of Zoroastrianism, a religion that preceded Islam, in the novel? Why might it be important to Darius Adam? Does it provide a source of prerevolution Iranian identity? And finally, how does the Zoroastrian motif of fire impair Darius’s attempt at restarting communication with Xerxes?

10. How did you react to Xerxes’s interrogation by the “Suited Man” and security agents after his breakdown in the airport in Frankfurt (p. 387)? Later, when Lala finds Xerxes in New York, she doesn’t frame the event in legal or political terms. What do you make of their pragmatism? How do you think their history as refugees from the Islamic revolution in Iran affect their relationship to the antiterrorist efforts of Western security agencies?

11. The 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie contains a pun on the word “genie,” which comes from Middle Eastern folklore. Discuss the importance of the show to Xerxes, who literally does dream of Jeannie (p. 170). Why does it have such special importance for him? How does the show encapsulate some of Xerxes’s particular issues and problems? And why does his dream of Jeannie metamorphose into a nightmare about a man “in turban and tunic and even beard, but completely and utterly faceless” (p. 172)?

12. The novel’s second half contains many parallel actions and thoughts, such as Lala’s plan to travel to New York and Suzanne’s plan to visit Tehran. Another example would be Darius and Xerxes’s breakdowns. Do you find them convincing? Do these twinned events suggest a kind of destiny at work in the unfolding of events? Can they be explained by the deep emotional bonds between the characters?

13. Darius is haunted by his father’s drunken dinner party announcement: “My friends . . . You see, I would take the deaths of my very own children before my wife’s—it is true, that is how strong our love is!” (p. 51) Yet Darius tells Xerxes about a documentary showing monkeys that stand on the shoulders of their children to save themselves from being burned (p. 371). Discuss this repetition. Is Darius conscious of exposing his son to a traumatic sense of parents as abusers rather than protectors?

14. When Darius first meets Suzanne, he thinks she bears an “uncanny” resemblance to Shireen, his imaginary daughter (p. 365). What did you make of this? Why does Darius have such an important relationship to an imaginary figure, and what does it mean that he transfers that relationship onto his son’s girlfriend? Is it a way of rerouting his unutterable, repressed love for his son?

15. Near the end of the novel, the sky is envisioned as a “happier alternative world”: “that safe suspension between the blindingly chaste original light of heaven and the nuclear ultraviolet afterglow of earth, his father, his girlfriend, him, all together in a cloud-cuckoo-land all their own. . .” (p. 389). Discuss the importance of not only birds, but all objects suspended in the sky (planes, stars, clouds, etc.) in the novel. What do they symbolize? Do these objects have a relationship to the novel’s themes of mixed identity?

Suggested Further Reading:

The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat; The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; The Histories by Herodotus; Falling Man by Don DeLillo; The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart; Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forough Farrokhzad, translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak.