A varied and absorbing collection of 16 stories by the Croatian-American author of Apricots from Chernobyl (not reviewed) and Yolk (1995). The influences of Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bruno Schulz are traceable throughout Novakovich’s unsettling fiction, in which violence and death often lie just beneath ostensibly benign comic surfaces. Many of his protagonists are survivors of “the Balkan wars”: specifically, Serbia’s Yolk oppression of Croatia. “Fritz: A Fable”--in which a dog’s hatred for a cat deftly allegorizes ethnic and nationalistic enmity—brilliantly updates the beast fable, and there are irresistibly lively pictures of children’s ability to thrive in even hostile environments in stories like “Ice” and the delightfully anecdotal “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail.” A handful set in America memorably limn the immigrant experience (especially “The End,” which explores, in a densely packed 20 pages, the lingering culture shock endured by a Croatian family). The best of these pieces, which analyze the alienated states of people who regret or cannot make sense of their past allegiances, include “Sheepskin,” the confession of a war victim who murders the wrong man in what he thinks is an act of justified vengeance, then pursues his victim’s widow; “Rye Harvest,” the tale of an immigrant desperately seeking security who finally reaches the US only to learn he’ll be immediately deported; and “A Free Fall,” which describes with wonderfully mingled humor and pathos the whole arc of its disabled narrator’s life, “from sperm to worm.” Novakovich’s characters aren’t just survivors; they’re energetic, hopeful souls whose appetite for life is best expressed by their exuberant, playful sexuality--for which their author repeatedly finds fresh, amusing metaphors (during sex, a woman —felt as though she were a computer accessory, for him to move his cursor around, or, more likely, a bit of physical to augment his virtual reality—). First-rate fiction, from one of the best short-story writers of the decade.