The Croatian-American author’s third collection offers 11 darkly comic stories about “Yugoslavia. Wars. Emigrants. Disappearing places.”
Those subjects are enumerated in “59th Parallel,” one of three stories focused on Balkan immigrants in America. Its narrator is displaced in numerous ways—as he rides the New York subway in the wake of the World Trade Center catastrophe, converses with an attractive redhead and, when nothing further develops, relates his experience and observes that “after 9/11, it’s nice not to have a plot, or big events.” A similar willed flatness limits the effectiveness of the story of a solitary immigrant college professor’s encounter with a straying wife and her suspicious husband (“Night Guests”); and the account of a Slovenian-American writer’s family trip to Russia, and frustratingly romantic night at the Bolshoi Ballet (“Tchaikovsky’s Bust”). But when Novakovich returns to the Balkans, he’s in his element. “The Stamp” wryly fictionalizes the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated WWI. The murderous legacy of Slobodan Milosevic takes numerous ingeniously seriocomic forms: the sexual dysfunction experienced during a “half-Serb, half-Croat” immigrant woman’s misconceived dalliance with a fast-talking countryman (“Spleen”); a Serbian grocer’s indecision whether to emigrate with his family, as bombs keep falling (“Neighbors”); and a Bosnian soldier’s accusation of betrayal when he attempts to follow newly adopted Buddhist principles (“Hail”). Civilian and pacifist protagonists suffer increasing privations and indignities in two longer, more ambitious stories (“Ribs”; “The Bridge Under the Danube”). And in two masterpieces, Novakovich traces the descent into war fervor of a thoughtful schoolboy who loves the exhilaration of winter and fears global warming (“Snow Powder”); and the roiling emotions of a cardiac patient who forms a strange relationship with his potential donor, then finds an unconventional path to renewed vitality (“A Purple Story”).
Uneven overall—but its best stories reaffirm that Novakovich is one of the great American writers of recent emergence.