By Aleksandar Hemon
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
September 2002; 0-385-49924-8; 256 pages
CHICAGO, APRIL 18, 1994
Had I been dreaming, I would have dreamt of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest--a recurring nightmare. But I was awake, listening to the mizzle in my pillow, to the furniture furtively sagging, to the house creaking under the wind assaults. I straightened my legs, so the blanket ebbed and my right foot rose out of the sludge of darkness like a squat, extinguished lighthouse. The blinds gibbered for a moment, commenting on my performance, then settled in silence.
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. I took off my underwear and let it lie in a pile, then stepped behind the curtain and let the water run. Wee rainbows locked in bubbles streamed into the inevitable, giddy whirl, as I fantasized about melting under the shower and disappearing into the drain.
I went down the stairs, carrying a mound of dirty laundry, careful not to trip over the inquisitive cat. I put the laundry on top of the washing machine, which shuddered as though delighted, and pulled the rope pending in the darkness--cobwebs sprung into the air around the bulb. I had to wait for the spin to throttle to a stop before I could put my laundry in the machine, so I followed the cat into the other room. There were boxes full of things that must have been left by the tenants--who might they have been?--who used to live in one of the apartments: wallpaper scrolls, a broken-boned umbrella, a soulless football, a bundle of shoes with crescent soles, a pictureless frame, skeins of anonymous dust. Back in the laundry room, I transferred the sodden clothes of the upstairs people to the dryer, then loaded the washing machine. In the other room, the cat was galloping around and producing noises of struggle, pursuing something I could not see.
Today was the interview day. I had called--years ago, it seemed now--and set up an interview for an ESL teaching job, strictly out of despair. I had been laid off from the Art Institute bookstore once the merry Christmas season, including the mad aftermath of the Big Sale, was over. My job there had been to unpack boxes of books, shelve the books, and then smash the boxes and throw them away. Smashing the boxes was my favorite part, the controlled, benign destruction.
Two white eggs roiled in the boiling water, like iris-less eyes. The floor was sticky, so I had to unpeel my bare soles from the floor with every step--I thought of the movies in which people walk on the ceiling, upside down. A cockroach was scuttling across the cutting board, trying to reach the safety behind the stove. I imagined 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.
I had tried other bookstores, but they didn't want me. I had tried getting a job as a waiter, elaborately lying about my previous waiting experience in the best Sarajevo restaurants, high European class all, and nonexistent on top of that. I had spent my measly savings and was in the furniture-selling phase. I sold, for the total of seventy-four dollars, a decaying futon with a rich cat-barf pattern; a hobbly table with four chairs, inexplicably scarred, as if they had walked through fields of barbed wire. I was late with my rent, and had already looked up the word eviction in the dictionary, hoping that the secondary, obsolete meaning ("The action of conquering a country or of obtaining something by conquest") would override my landlord's primary meaning and save my ass.
The frighteningly simple thing was that when I was inside nobody was on the porch: the green plastic chairs convened around nothing; the swing still quaked under invisible weight; the empty flowerpots faced out, like Easter Island heads. A fly buzzed against the windowpane, as though trying to cut through it with a minikin saw. In the house across the street, a bare-chested man, skinny like a camp inmate--his shoulder-bones protruding, his trunk striped with rib shadows--was coming in and out of his house feverishly, only to disappear into it in the end. I was about to lock the door when I saw the cat gnawing on a mouse's head, patiently exposing its crimson essence.
And it hadn't been just the money. When I couldn't smash the boxes, I had obsessively read the papers and watched TV (until I sold it) to see what was happening back home. What was happening was death. I had looked up that word too: "The act or fact of dying; the end of life; the final and irreversible cessation of the vital function of a plant or an animal."
The air was oily and warm, and I stood on the street inhaling. There had been a time when that scent marked the beginning of marble season: the ground would soon be soft and you didn't have to wear gloves; you could keep your hands in your pockets--waiting for your turn, revolving marbles with the tips of your fingers--until a red line appeared across your palm, marking the border between the part of your palm that was inside and the one that was outside. You would kneel and indent the soil with your knees, imprinting smudges on your trousers, progressing toward an inexorable punishment from your parents. I had a couple of marbles in my pockets, plus an El transfer card, creased and fragile.
A woman with spring freckles, towed by a giant Akita, smiled at me for no apparent reason, and I stepped off the pavement--confused by the smile, scared by the Akita--onto the ground. I let the woman pass, and then walked slowly, as if walking through deep water, because I didn't want her to think that I was following her. The Akita was sniffing everything, frantically collecting information. The woman turned around and looked at me again. The sun was behind my back, so she squinted, wrinkling the ridge of her nose. She seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but the Akita pulled her away, almost ripping her arm off. I was relieved. I preferred being a vague, pleasant memory to having to explain who I was or telling her that I had no job, and when I had one I was smashing boxes.
A teenager in a window-throbbing car drove by, pointing his finger at me, shooting. I crossed the street to look at a sheet of paper pinned to a tree in front of a building exuding dampness. The sign read in red letters:
Outside the El station, a man with a black bowler hat was rattling his tambourine, out of any recognizable rhythm, singing a song about the spirit in the sky in a flat, disenchanted voice. The man smiled at me, showing dark gaps between his teeth. When I was a boy, spitting between your teeth was considered a great skill, because you could achieve precision, like those snakes in Survival spurting poison at terrified field mice, but my teeth were too close together, and I could never do it--after every attempt there would be some spit dripping off my chin.
smelled of urine and petroleum. A dreadlocked woman in a yellow
"All we ask for," said a young man, with his hands folded over his crotch, "is to give your life to Jesus Christ and follow him to the Kingdom of God." His companion, wide-shouldered, bearded, walked through the train car offering everyone a brown bag of peanuts and salvation. An old lady with a plastic wrap on her bloated gray hair grinned abruptly, as if a shot of pain went through her body at that very instant. A wizened old man, wearing a grimace of perplexed horror, and a sallow straw fedora, looked up at the peanut man. A young woman in front of me--a pointed tongue of hair touched her collar, and she smelled like cinnamon and milk--was reading the paper. DEFENSES COLLAPSE IN GORAZDE, a headline read. I had been in Gorayzde only once, only because I had vomited in the car, on our way somewhere, and my parents stopped in Gorayzde to clean the mess up. All I remembered was being thirsty and shivering on the front seat, as my father retched in the back seat, wiping it with a cloth; and then my father leaving my cloth- wrapped vomit by the road, and hungry, desperate little animals crawling out of the bushes to devour it. The woman gave a neatly creased dollar to the peanut man, took a bag from him and ripped it open, and then started crunching the nuts. I said: "No, thank you." Granville, Loyola, Morse. The woman flipped the page, a few nutshells pitter-pattered on it. SUNNY SKIES WARM MOST OF NATION. We all disembarked from the train at Howard, leaving behind throngs of peanut shells, and a drunk in a Cubs hat, slumped in the dark corner.
I put my hands in the jacket pockets: a couple of marbles, a taper of lint, a coin, a transfer. I remember this trivial handful because I can recall looking at an old black lady: a peppered coat, a bell hat, her knuckles coiled around a cane handle, leaning slightly forward. To be able to put your hands in your pockets, I thought, was not such a bad thing, your pockets are your hands' home.
There was a bench nobody was sitting on, encrusted with blotches. I looked up, and on a steel beam high up above perched a jury of pigeons, cooing peevishly. They bloated and deflated, blinking down on us, effortlessly releasing feces. When I was a kid, I thought that snow came from God shitting on us. The Touhy bus arrived, and we lined up at the bus door. I experienced an intense sneeze of happiness, simply because I had managed not to lose my transfer.
The bus smelled of an unknown disinfecting potion, a trace of sausagey sweat, and nondescript dust dryness. The jury of pigeons fluttered up as the bus moved forward, pressing us against our seats, until we all dutifully jerked forward. I used to have a friend--he was killed by an accelerating piece of shrapnel--who liked to think that there was a quiet part of the universe where a body could have a steady velocity, going in the same field. This bus, for instance, would have moved with smooth, pleasant velocity, down Touhy, not stopping at the lights, on to Lincolnwood, Park Ridge, Elk Grove Village, Schaumburg, Hanover Park, and onward through Iowa and whatever there was beyond Iowa, all the way to California, and then over the Pacific, gliding across the endless water until we reached Shanghai--we would have all got to know one another on this ship, we would have gone all the way together.
The bus stopped abruptly at Western, the driver honking violently, then glancing at us in the rearview mirror. A man crossed the street in front of the bus, carrying a rolled-up carpet, which was breaking on his shoulder, its ends touching the ground. The man was sagging under the burden, his neck bent, his knees stooping, as if he were carrying a weighty cross.
We moved on, passed Inner Light Hair Sanctuary, AutoZone PartsWorld, Wultan Monuments, Land of Submarines; crossed California, gliding by Barnaby & Scribner Family Dining, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Eastern Style Pizza--I got off the bus across the street from a Chinese restaurant. New World, it was called, and it was empty, only a sign in the window saying for lease.
I had a few more minutes before the interview, and I was not ready to go in and get a job (How could I teach anyone anything?), so I lingered in front of the photo shop next to New World. A sign in the window--thick black letters--read:
a Before photo and an After photo: the Before photo showed a man with
a long curly beard slowly swallowing his face and dark wrinkles above
his murky eyes. He sat with his hands coiled in his lap. A younger man
stood on his left, his right hand cautiously touching the old man's shoulder.
The upper right-hand corner of the photo was missing, including half of
the young man's yarmulke. Both men were cut by a jagged white line (the
old man across his chest, the young man across his waist), with a trail
of white blots spreading toward the old man's beard--a crease and its
offspring, created in somebody's pocket. The After photo had no blots,
had no crease, and the yarmulke was restored. Their faces were whiter,
and the young man's hand firmly grasped the old man's shoulder--wherever
they were now, they were in it together. If only I could afford to succumb
to this depleting sorrow, to stop walking with my chin up, and just collapse,
like a smashed box, things would be much simpler. There was a photo of
the Lake-in-the-Hills Mall at night, all glaring neon blue, neon yellow,
and neon pink.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Question of Bruno, one of the most celebrated debuts in recent American fiction, returns with the mind- and language-bending adventures of his endearing protagonist Jozef Pronek.
This is what we know about Jozef Pronek: He is a young man from Sarajevo who left to visit the United States in 1992, just in time to watch war break out at home on TV. Stranded in the relative comfort of Chicago, he proves himself a charming and frankly perceptive observer of and participant in American life. With Nowhere Man, Pronek, accidental urban nomad, gets his own book.
Aleksandar Hemon lovingly crafts Pronek into a character who is sure to become an enduring literary icon. From the grand causes of his adolescence principally, fighting to change the face of rock and roll and, hilariously, struggling to lose his virginity up through a fleeting encounter with George Bush (the first) in Kiev, to enrollment in a Chicago ESL class and the glorious adventures of minimum-wage living, Proneks experiences are at once touchingly familiar and bracingly out-of-the-ordinary.
But the story of his life is not so simple as a series of global adventures. Pronek is continually haunted by an unseen observer, his movements chronicled by narrators with dubious motives-all of which culminates in a final episode that upends many of our assumptions about Proneks identity, while illustrating precisely what it means to be a Nowhere Man.
With all the literary verve of The Question of Bruno, but with an engrossing narrative, engaging warmth, and refreshing humor, Nowhere Man brings to life a protagonist whose very way of looking at and living in the world provokes an exhilarating sense of seeing everything new again. And all the while, the inspired freshness of the prose reminds the reader why Aleksandar Hemon earned such extraordinary recognition after just one book.(back to top)
Aleksandar Hemon (HAY-mun) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1964. He began writing as a teenager, was a published writer by the time he graduated from Sarajevo University in 1990, and later became cultural editor of Dani, the independent Sarajevo weekly. In 1992, he went to Chicago on what was planned as a short visit, but he was soon stranded in the U.S. as Sarajevo fell under siege. Hemon found himself unable to write in his native Serbo-Croatian. When it became clear that he would be in the U.S. more or less permanently, he gave himself five years to master enough English to write fiction. Hemon laboriously expanded his knowledge of English, using Nabokov's Lolita as his key to unlocking the language. His metamorphosis from Bosnian refugee with basic English to an author writing in English making the most acclaimed literary debut in decades was astonishing. One of his first stories, "Islands," was published in Ploughshares and then reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1999.
His short story collection The Question of Bruno, which appeared on Best Books of 2000 lists nationwide, won several literary awards, and was published in eighteen countries. His novel Nowhere Man has been selected as a 2002 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) finaliist.Hemon's work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Esquire, Granta, Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories.
Aleksandar Hemon still lives in Chicago, Illinois.