Following his critically acclaimed short story collection, The Question of Bruno
, Aleksandar Hemon's debut novel Nowhere Man
confirms that an important new voice has arrived. Unlike other Eastern European coming-of-age novels, Nowhere Man
bucks chronological order, spanning the 1990s and sometimes reading like a memoir. Jozef Pronek, who grew up dreaming of hitting it big with his Beatles cover band, wanders through his adopted Chicago while the Bosnia conflict rages on, working as a process server and for Greenpeace, where he meets his girlfriend, Rachel. Jozef spends time in Kiev with American graduate students, such as the uncannily depicted Will, "blonde and suburbanly ... [as if his] family procreated by fission," and Vivian, "pale and in need of a carrot or something." He rooms with Victor Plavchuk, a conflicted doctoral student in literature who develops a crush on Jozef (and who is reminiscent of a subdued Charles Kinbote from Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
). Jozef is sublimely complex, embodying the listlessness and frank practicality of expatriates whose homeland is being shredded by violent conflict. Jozef wonders, "Why couldn't he be more than one person? Why was he stuck in the middle of himself, hungry and tired?" while a woman "[keeps] her hands in the pockets of her formerly blue jacket, as if despair were a marble in her pocket." Hemon's wit is also present: "The only thing that distinguished Pronek in school was that he never, ever volunteered to do anything." Nowhere Man
is a somber, saddening, yet vibrant and warm debut novel. --Michael Ferch
From Publishers Weekly
Jozef Pronek, the quirky Sarajevan who captured the imagination of readers in Hemon's acclaimed story collection (The Question of Bruno), gets full-length treatment in this acutely self-aware and tender first novel. Hemon plunges into the inner world of the observant Pronek, making ordinary events seem extraordinary through the sheer power of his detailed descriptions as his protagonist navigates the war-torn land that was once Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia and the wilds of Chicago in the 1990s. Death is a constant companion for Pronek, as is a mysterious man who shadows him wherever he goes, and their lockstep journey is at the heart of a book that wanders back and forth through time and space. Hemon is stingingly accurate in his portrayal of the small, pivotal moments of youth: Pronek resorting to sliced onions to make himself cry at his grandmother's funeral, his first bungling effort at sex, his noisy rock band and his humiliating stint as a soldier. When Pronek goes to Kiev to visit his grandfather, Hemon effectively spells out his need to make sense of his life and his frustrated nationalism, his love for a country that seems to no longer love itself. The weight of such reflections are counterbalanced by zany scenes like Pronek's encounter with President G.H.W. Bush at a ceremony on the site of the Babi Yar massacre. As a "nowhere man," Pronek travels to Chicago, where he is out of step with the alienated youth culture, a person with a dubious identity and past that is not fully explained until the final chapter. Pronek's constantly reconfiguring life makes the novel a wild, twisty read, and Hemon's inimitable voice and the wry urgency of his storytelling should cement his reputation as a talented young writer.
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