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Cults and Cult Leaders in Contemporary Literature: Background information when reading The Parking Lot Attendant

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The Parking Lot Attendant

A Novel

by Nafkote Tamirat

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat X
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 240 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2019, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Cults and Cult Leaders in Contemporary Literature

This article relates to The Parking Lot Attendant

Print Review

The Parking Lot Attendant's Ayale is an archetypical cult leader – charismatic, intelligent, savage and manipulative. The novel's young narrator finds herself unwillingly ensnared in a cult through her association with Ayale. The cult leader is a fascinating figure, one that is frequently reproduced and reimagined in literature. Nafkote Tamirat's debut fits into a recent uptick in captivating cult-related books.



In Jennie Melamed's 2017 novel Gather the Daughters, the author presents a terrifying religious cult through the eyes of the young girls who must endure its oppressive rituals. The focus is on their suffering and ultimate rebellion rather than on the cult leaders, who are shadowy figures that emerge only to criticize and discipline those who do not comply with their strict rules and regulations. Much like parts of The Parking Lot Attendant, Gather the Daughters takes place on a mysterious island completely cut off from society. Both novels acutely depict the coming-of-age of young women under the sway and authority of dangerous men.

Emma Cline's The Girls, released in 2016, is based on Charles Manson's cult and the murders committed on his orders. Russell, Cline's fictional version of Manson, is largely motivated by power, sex, and his potential music career. Like Ayale, Russell praises the young protagonist's intelligence in order to gain her trust. Both this novel and The Parking Lot Attendant show how lonely, bright young women seeking guidance and friendship can be taken advantage of and manipulated when they trust the wrong people.

Rebecca Wait's 2015 novel The Followers also features a cult leader quite similar to Ayale. Nathaniel is a philosophy teacher who charms the protagonist, Stephanie, with compliments about her intelligence and depth.

Nathaniel controls his followers with a zealous religious doctrine and violence, not unlike founder of The Peoples Temple Jim Jones, who famously spurred his followers on to suicide. Fred D'Aguiar's 2015 novel Children of Paradise is a similar reimagining of the Jonestown massacre, featuring a violent leader called "the preacher" who claims to have miraculous healing powers. D'Aguiar grew up in Guyana where the Peoples Temple established their compound, and where a majority of its members died of mass suicide in 1978.

Though not as recent, Katherine Dunn's immensely popular 1989 novel, Geek Love, has similar thematic elements. It explores the lives of a circus family of "freaks," the Bineskis. The children include a hunchback, a set of Siamese twins, and Arturo the Aqua Boy, a reptile/human hybrid who launches a cult called "Arturism." Arturo encourages his followers to cut off their limbs in search of personal truth and enlightenment. Just like Ayale, Arturo's cult following begins with rather casual conversations, and snowballs into rapt devotion by those in his orbit. Ayale and Arturo both attempt to seize power because of their feelings as outcasts – Arturo because of his physical deformities, Ayale because he feels persecuted as an Ethiopian immigrant in America.

Filed under Reading Lists

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Parking Lot Attendant. It originally ran in March 2018 and has been updated for the August 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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