Mohammed "Mo" Shirazi, the protagonist of Fred Kashani's humorous second novel Hero Pizza, is a twenty-something artist traveling from New York to Tokyo for an exhibition of his work. On the way, he has decided--presumably against his own better judgment--to stop by Los Angeles (Reseda, to be exact) and drop in on his parents. Hero Pizza chronicles one day of this layover (punctuated with frequent childhood flashbacks) as Mo tries to cope with the casually oppressive forces of nature that he calls mom and dad.
Anyone who's grown up in America with Iranian parents will find plenty in the book that rings excruciatingly true-to-life. Mo has barely hit the ground when his mother takes him to lunch and spends most of the meal trying to fix him up with a random cousin who lives a continent away. Mo's father Arash seems capable of only three things: embarrassing Mo with his farcical antics, deriding Mo's life-choices big or small, and assaulting Mo with fables and stories that are meant to illustrate Iranians' superiority and corroborate his own opinions (but usually amount to lengthy non-sequiturs).
Kashani, who was born in the U.S. and raised in Los Angeles, spends most of his pages focusing on the father-son relationship, and nicely captures the special way Iranian fathers have of making their sons feel like failures while appearing only to be offering aid and advice. (Typical Arash rant: "Art is not business. You are too smart to be an artist. If you don't want to study business then you should be a doctor or an engineer. You should work for me then art can be your hobby. I can teach you business. Listen to your Baba.") Arash owns the titular fast-food establishment, and most of Mo's day is spent being guilt-tripped into helping out with various pizza-based chores while his father either naps or spews forth pearls of ancient Persian wisdom. It's easy to see why Mo has left home—escaped, really—and settled down all the way on the other side of the country, as far away from this madness as possible.
In bringing Mo back into the gnarls of his Iranian-American roots, Kashani highlights an intertwining array of incongruities familiar to most children of immigrants: being infantilized by your own parents while trying to live an adult life, being stuck between two cultures neither of which you can truly claim as your own, doing things that you don't want to do while simultaneously feeling guilty that you are not doing enough, and so on. And he subtly makes the point that getting mired in these contradictions can only produce commensurately ludicrous situations in one's life:
Mo's first day home, which takes up the whole of the book, is little more than a series of increasingly absurd encounters and misadventures. At one point late in the story Mo, reluctantly trying to deliver some pizzas, finds himself wearing a homemade superhero costume and being held hostage on a stranger's garage roof by an 8-year-old waving a gun, while the kid's father tries to hose his son down. Not coincidentally, it is at that moment that Mo recovers his sense of self: "I started laughing as I realized I didn't belong here. It wasn't my garage. It wasn't my gun. It wasn't my kid. It wasn't even my job!...My job is to contribute to the great dialogue my ancestors began on cave walls thousands of years ago. I am an Artist." And the self-validation sticks: a short time later, as Arash tries to shake Mo down for the tips he's made delivering pizza, Mo actually says no to his dad—seemingly for the first time in his life. And it feels good.
Kashani's writing is simple and unassuming—more conversational than literary—and serves his narrative well. Most importantly, he manages to satirize his characters without patronizing them; his tone is firmly rooted in affection and never wades into the snarky undertow that is currently sweeping Gen-X memoirs. As a bonus, Hero Pizza is peppered with references to and quotes from Iranian poets, philosophers and mystics, as well as explanations of assorted products and practices specific to Iranian culture—a veritable introductory course that novice Persophiles will find quite useful.
Omid Arabian is an Iranian-American 'in-betweener' who serves as film editor at the Levantine Review.