American 12-year-old Marwand is visiting his parents’ homeland in Afghanistan’s Logar Province — happily reunited with a crew of cousins and young “little uncles” — when the family compound’s guard dog, Budabash, bites off the tip of his finger and runs away.
Leaving his little brothers behind, Marwand sets off in a secret search party for the devilish hound that ends up causing his family much worry, sparking two weddings and leading to the loss, return and loss again of his Coolpix camera.
Through it all, in his sparkling debut novel “99 Nights in Logar,” O. Henry Prize winner Jamil Jan Kochai sets up story after story, and tales inside tales. There’s the relative who plunders a gold nugget from the black mountains, the 1980s Communist deserter who ends up repaying the family for harboring him, the distant cousin who works as a translator for the Americans and has a habit of disappearing.
Marwand’s father keeps circling back to the one story he can never finish telling, about how his little brother died.
Set in 2005, against the backdrop of the American occupation of Kabul and Afghanistan’s war-torn history, “99 Nights in Logar” is funny, immersive and crackling with a tween boy’s sensibilities.
There’s a white rooster named George Bush, a fanciful tale about a djinn who haunts outhouses and endless viewings of “Rambo III.”
Kochai’s writing throughout is lovely and evocative while still hewing to his young narrator’s perspective.
Depending on where the family stays, the bombs in the distance are lullabies or thunder.
“From Agha’s rooftop, the bombs didn’t just rumble, they lit up the mountains, glowing out across the landscape in a red so pale it was almost orange, or pink, sending us first a sharp scream and then a thundering note, which over at Moor’s house might’ve lulled us to sleep,” he writes.
As the hunt for Budabash ebbs and then sparks up again, the book veers into the magical — with a maze that seems to swallow those who enter, tunnels filled with bones, a thief who keeps reappearing and a mysterious dry land seasickness that suddenly lays out the entire extended family.
Our hero ends up spending the night lost outside his family’s compound more than once, dons a burqa to sneak into a part of his aunt’s wedding that’s for women only and keeps on eating mulberries even though he knows they will make him sick.
And his finger just won’t heal, but at least his little brothers understand why.
Marwand, an outsider and an insider at the same time, is so interested in hearing his family’s history that he once leans in too far while eavesdropping on a roof and tumbles down onto a group of women below.
Kochai’s storytelling has the power to make “99 Nights in Logar” readers feel just as absorbed and captivated.
Erica Pearson is a features writer for the Star Tribune.
99 Nights in Logar
By: Jamil Jan Kochai.
Publisher: Viking, 279 pages, $25.