The Heritage of Smoke by Josip Novakovich

In The Heritage of Smoke (Dzanc, 240 pages), a collection of short stories set mainly in 20th century war-wrecked Croatia or Ex-Yugoslavia, Josip Novakovich makes American-born writers, whose plots inevitably turn on sexuality and identity, seem merely whiny and self-obsessed. This masterful storyteller follows ordinary lives in the relatively small, recently-renamed Eastern European country, of which Americans are only vaguely aware, whose diverse cultures and old animosities persist through regime change. Caught between the whims and wars of super power nations and petty dictators, the characters revealed here endure, curse, and try to have fun. Novakovich’s characters tend to be listless, jaded, and stubborn, but they also have a kind of a dignified persistence, like old trees growing in the cracks of mountaintop stone .

In one story there’s a sympathetic Serbian, a would-be terrorist/hijacker, who is pacified by a sensitive (and attractive) flight attendant, in another there is a Croatian-American journalist turned soldier who is raped in war and keeps the baby, and in another, a father who loses his daughter to a pharmaceutical company experiment with a new vaccine. At the end of the collection Novakovich goes back further in history and gives us a droll look into the mind of the most famous (then Austro-Hungarian, or if you prefer, present-day Croatia-born) Serbian, Nicola Tesla. Novakovich makes his Tesla sound like some of his other Serbians, thinking wistfully to himself that, if he had only had the financial backing and if only his lab hadn’t gone up in flames a couple of times,

by now we would live in a different world, without wires and rails. We would travel through air on electromagnetic waves, we’d talk to our European cousins on wireless telephones, we’d bomb our enemies with powerful focused cosmic rays, with no need for guns and cannons.

In another story, bombs explode nearby while Ivan is shaving. “The chetniks, what else?” His wife shouts, “Run for cover,” even though they do not have a safer place than the bathroom to run to.

He had built the house alone — actually, with a little help from his oldest flat-footed son, Daniel, who had groaned more than he’d worked. It took Ivan twenty years of careful labor to finish the house, but one part he had skipped was a cellar, perhaps because snakes had nested and floods had crept into the cellar of his childhood home.  God is my fortress and my strength was his motto. But now, in addition to God, a cellar would have helped.

Mostly strikingly The Heritage of Smoke is a collection of structurally sound and complete short stories. Lest my readers frown at such philistine praise of good craftsmanship, let me note that talent without skill can only produce the undecipherable dream.  I’m cranky, I guess, because I’m currently reading Paul Theroux’s short story collection Mr. Bones (review forthcoming), a collection of character sketches that cry out for real homes within the structure of a novel. As I return to thinking about Novakovich’s work (read a year ago as the Canadian version, Ex-Yu) to write this overdue review, I can appreciate all the more the sense of satisfaction I had at the close of each of his tales. In comparison, with Theroux, when I come to the end of a story, I find myself checking to see if I accidentally skipped a page. Is that it?

Novakovich stories are not just sketches or free-floating descriptions of interesting bits of life. Each story is a mini-world, complete with well-developed characters playing the hand life has unfairly dealt them.

V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015

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