There may be no unifying theme to Josip Novakovich's The Heritage of Smoke. But underlying the brilliant short-story collection is a pattern of man's inhumanity to man. And no wonder. Author of April Fool's Day, among others, the writer hails from Croatia. Two decades ago the fleeting republic of Yugoslavia came apart at the seams. The settings may range from placid Wyoming and Iowa to devastated New York or Srebrenica. But the tone throughout is a manic despair one associates with post-traumatic stress.
One of the New York stories, "Dutch Treat", centers on the events of 9/11. Surveillance cameras catch an innocent man grinning among some grinning "Arabic-looking" shopkeepers. The man also gave someone a sizable sum of money that landed in the hands of Mohammed Atta. The Kafkaesque storyline underscores the occasional absurdities of the American surveillance state.
Another story, "Acorns," relates the rape of an American aid worker in war-torn Bosnia. As in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, the woman becomes pregnant. Should she counter the violence of rape with the violence of abortion? Or counter with love by bringing the child to term? In "Be Patient," a child falls victim to a botched vaccination. It turns out that Big Pharma tests drugs in countries with scant history of suing for malpractice. America looms large in the Yugoslavia stories, a deus ex machina with dubious motives. So too does the UN, "a bunch of sex tourists and vultures."
Other stories are notable. "When the Saints Come" concerns a man saved from cancer who travels to the Holy Land. He finds it to be barbaric and ridiculous, only to die anyway. In "Tumbleweed," a hitchhiker flags a ride with an American thinking he's from "Yugoslavakia.” The hitchhiker's intoxication leads to a clash with the law. The title story, about someone tormented by his last cigarette, recalls Zeno's Conscience.
This collection has stories about rats, Nikola Tesla and cannibalism (though not all at once). The range alone suggests genius. The author's timing is faultless and the bathos hard-won. But the genius is never far from madness and nihilism. Gallows humor abounds, akin perhaps to Hemingway's "On the Quai at Smyrna." But Novakovich's voice is wholly unique and original. Antecedents don't spring to mind.
It's not uncommon for some to administer Last Rites to the short-story form. Novakovich is a promising, even an essential, refutation.