In his funny, poignant novel Nowhere Man, Sarajevo-born and Chicago-based Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno) takes the conflicted heart of immigrant imagination — hawk-eyed reportage in the placid Now versus lush memories of an intense Then — and turns it outside in. His portrait of Bosnian refugee Jozef Pronek comes in the cunning form of a shape-shifter‘s travelogue: Pronek’s progress is charted by (among others) a childhood acquaintance in Sarajevo, an American student studying the Ukraine and an American teacher visiting Shanghai. This disco-ball refraction of the newcomer‘s alienation takes us from hallucinatory early flashpoints (Grandma dying in bed beside him, pinning him to the wall; the epiphany of seeing a Beatles songbook in a shop window) to the trepidation of knocking on strange doors (and mangling English) for Greenpeace in late 1990s Chicago.
Hemon’s narrative hopscotch is emblematic, perhaps, of his ambivalence toward the staid immigrant saga and its sob-story cliches. Paradoxically, his outsider‘s eye for American detail actually makes him an insider who can produce effortless sketches of semi-informed, multiculti Chicago, a place where sweaty rubes asking “Are you Muslim?” can seem as ungenerous as smug hipsters drunk on irony. (Will Pronek’s Gen-X pals ever understand that his love for “Yesterday” is heartfelt and not mere kitsch?) As Pronek‘s story emerges in dispatches from all over the map, you get a fine sense that his nostalgia’s not limited to one time or one place. Hemon‘s enviable gift lies in conveying Pronek’s peculiar loneliness — the existential detention of a man on a bridge between different worlds, all storied up, with no place to go.
NOWHERE MAN | BY ALEKSANDAR HEMON | Nan A. TaleseDoubleday | 256 pages | $24 hardcover