I'm still trying to figure out how or what Aleksandar Hemon, already one of my favorite new authors on the strength of two brilliant books, was doing so quickly remaindered in a local bookstore. $3.98 for Nowhere Man?! After reading Hemon's first book, The Question of Bruno, in grad school, I was definitely looking forward to his follow-up. Nowhere Man brings back the character of Jozef Pronek, a Hemon alter-ego of sorts, as is the narrator, who is also part of the story, both Bosnian emigres to Chicago whose lives parallel each other. But what really amazes in Hemon's writing is less plot -- though his storytelling prowess is sharp and many scenes poignant -- but the way he nails details, describes the every day with an acute clarity of language. This is particularly startling given that Hemon writes in English, a language he'd only learned a scant few years ago. But in a strange way this may give him an advantage. He can hone in on words through the back-end and in trapdoors, freeing himself up to be more playful than many native writers, like a kid with a new toy, while choosing each word perfectly and effortlessly.
Even right off the bat, on page 1: " I closed the bathroom door and the hooked towels trembled. There was the pungent smell of the plastic shower curtain and disintegrating soap. The toilet bowl was agape, with a dissolving piece of toilet paper in it throbbing like a jellyfish. The faucet was sternly counting off droplets. ... Wee rainbows locked in bubbles streamed into the inevitable, giddy whirl, as I fantasized about melting under the shower and disappeared down the drain."
And later, narrating Pronek's coming of age: "It was in the summer after the fifth grade that a small reconnaissance unit of pubertal hormones -- the avant-garde of a great army -- entered the unconquered Pronek territory, He was spending a couple of seaside-vacation weeks with his parents in Gradac. ... He had noticed before that there were girls who didn't have to wear a swimsuit top and that there were girls who did, but for the first time that summer he realized that there was a fundamental difference between them, so much so that he got a slap on the back of his head for staring at a girl in a pink swimsuit, her nipples swollen."
I love many of the incidental moments involving Pronek's coming of age in pre-war Sarajevo, especially his discovery of Western rock music, both for the love of the songs and, to be frank, as a way to meet chicks (the scenes with young Pronek's Beatles cover band are hilarious and memorable, right on up to the ironic moment when Tito's death ruins everything). Then there's his later, completely believable encounter with George Bush I, which I won't spoil here. Hemon's weaving of the sad, the tragic, with the riotously, naturally funny appears effortless, but requires a matchless gift.
It's no accident that Hemon's consistently been compared to Nabokov, but he's a writing clinic all on his own. I highly recommend Nowhere Man, whether you find it discounted or full price. I do wonder a bit about what Hemon will do next, for an encore, expecting (and hoping a little) that he'll break a bit out of the territory he's explored in the first two works, lest he fall into a rut, but am not too worried. Whatever he writes about promises to be fascinating.
[Extra: My friend Walt Opie and I saw Hemon read recently at California College of the Arts; Walt blogged some of Hemon's best moments and got a couple of pictures of him to boot. ]