“Nowhere Man” by Aleksandar Hemon

The story of a Sarajevan stranded in Chicago during the recent war offers an immigrant's hilarious and wretched view of American society.

Topics: Books,

At the beginning of Aleksander Hemon’s new novel, one of the book’s narrators staggers into the bathroom in the morning and notices “the toilet bowl agape, with a dissolving piece of toilet paper in it throbbing like a jellyfish.” A little later, in the kitchen, he compares two eggs tumbling in boiling water to “iris-less eyes.” Then he spots a cockroach making for the space behind the stove and he imagines the creature’s further journeys there, “the greasy warmth, the vales of dirt, the wires winding like roads. I imagined getting there, still clutching a crumb of skin, after almost being cut in half by something immense coming down on me.”

Hemon, a Sarajevan who got stranded during a visit to Chicago when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in the early ’90s, dotes on such cruddy, banal details, what another of the book’s narrators calls “unremarkable things.” His favorite words would appear to be “minikin” and “mindfully,” which tell you what he looks for and how. He also lingers over odd scraps of time, as when the character around whom this book constellates, Jozef Pronek, watches a motley assortment of citizens at an el stop, and muses, “This moment … would not be remembered by anybody but him, and one day it would vanish from his memory, too.”

All of this might seem a bit precious if it weren’t likely that Jozef, whose story somewhat echoes Hemon’s own, is hoarding all this flotsam against the kind of unanticipated catastrophe that left him scrounging to survive in a foreign country while his homeland self-destructed and old friends sent him letters explaining that his ex-girlfriend’s legs had been blown off in a marketplace. You sense that Hemon has always been the kind of person who, say, when writing a sex scene, is less interested in ecstasy than he is in the stray pimple, a skinny girl’s “asymmetrical, cross-eyed breasts” and all varieties of bodily failure and imperfection. These, after all, are the rough surfaces that keep life from slipping through our hands. And yet that instinct can only have been sharpened by the brute understanding of just how suddenly a whole world and all the people in it can be lost.

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“Nowhere Man” is mostly the story of Jozef’s youth — the adolescent romances and rebellions, the seemingly obligatory Beatles cover band, the definitely obligatory stint in the army — and then his years in Chicago, barely surviving on minimum-wage jobs and feeling so lonely he envies the cocker spaniel described on a barely literate lost dog poster. At least someone’s noticed the pooch is gone. This is a downbeat, but also funny book, soaked in the mood that Bosnians call “sevdah,” “a feeling of pleasant soul pain, when you are at peace with your woeful life, which allows you to enjoy this very moment with abandon.” It’s decidely modern, too, more ironic than Romantic. The story in “Nowhere Man” is told by several voices: an unnamed fellow Bosnian, an American who meets Jozef in a study program in the Ukraine and perhaps someone else — things get a bit enigmatic toward the novel’s end.

I can’t claim to have a line on what Hemon’s doing with an ominous, Poe-like running motif of a scrabbling mouse, a man driven mad by the sound of this creature and, in the novel’s coda, a mysterious Russian spy of sinister reputation and theatrical charm. There’s something indeterminate about the book’s point of view (a couple of the narrators know more about Jozef than anyone who wasn’t Jozef possibly could), and this seems to have existential or even supernatural implications. But, no matter. Jozef’s story — the Eastern European teenager’s painfully unhip efforts at hipness and then the immigrant’s hilarious and wretched view of American society, with a slow magma of rage and terror roiling deep below — can stand on its own.

And then there’s Hemon’s writing, the way he wrenches English words into previously unknown yet alarmingly fitting configurations, as when a man is described as “inhabiting a magnanimous smile,” a “throng” of carnations is “wizened,” a goiter — trust Hemon to never let a goiter pass by unnoted — is “rotund.” Reading him is like watching a documentary about someone you know intimately and witnessing that person transformed by the attention into something rich and strange — only with Hemon it’s the humble texture of the everyday life that’s transfigured by his scrutiny. You don’t realize how much you cherish it until it’s lost, or perhaps until someone who’s lost it makes you understand just how dear it really is.

Our next pick: The residents of an apartment building live out stories inspired by Fitzgerald, Kafka and other giants

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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