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The Making of Zombie Wars
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
It's funny that so much of my time as a reviewer in the last few months has been centered around authors who wanted to write a character-heavy novel with a loose and light plot, but largely failed at making those novels entertaining in any way whatsoever; because Alexsandar Hemon's latest, originally released last spring but that I just got a chance to read this month, is actually a really charming and wonderful example of exactly that, and now makes me want to buy a dozen copies, hand them out to most of the authors I've reviewed in the last three or four months, and say to them, "For the love of God, please read this freaking book before you inflict the world on any more books of your own."
A big departure for the academically revered and usually quite serious Chicagoan and former Yugoslavian immigrant (I say it that way because he immigrated before the Balkan Civil War), The Making of The Zombie Wars is actually a light-hearted comedy about a young male fuck-up, written in the style of Elmore Leonard (or for local lit fans, closely reminiscent of Joseph G. Peterson's Gideon's Confession), the story of a frustrated screenwriter who regularly falls ass-backwards into easy sex, is dealing unsuccessfully with his elderly Jewish father (and even more unsuccessfully with his overbearing sister), has a strange relationship with the PTSD-suffering Desert Storm vet who serves as his quasi-legal landlord, and who stumbles into a series of random, violent adventures because of teaching English as a Second Language to a series of fresh immigrants from eastern Europe (including a former KGB officer from Russia who views the entirety of America with "this is what won the Cold War?" contempt, a great example of the darkly hilarious tone Hemon maintains throughout the entire book).
Make no mistake, though, there's definitely a serious point to be had here; set in the years right after 9/11, a big focus of the novel is the fresh Bosnian immigrants from the ESL class who have literally just escaped the horrors of the war in their homeland, and the ways those experiences have scarred them from ever being able to have normal, non-violence-tinged relationships, likely ever again. But in the meanwhile, Hemon has great fun looking at the foibles of learning a new language, and the eternal capacity of young white males to screw up any situation they're in, even getting in a subtle homage to John Irving's The World According to Garp (each chapter starts with a few pages from our hero's perpetually unfinished zombie thriller Hollywood screenplay, in which it becomes clear that it's being heavily influenced by the real events happening in his life). An especially great treat for residents like me of Chicago's Uptown neighborhood where this novel is set (including an opening scene that takes place literally three blocks from my apartment), you certainly do not need to be a local to enjoy this funny, outrageous, and sometimes very thought-provoking book; and the only reason it's not getting a better score is that this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially for Hemon's existing fans who were expecting yet another NPR-fetish dirge about the immigrant experience. Other than that, it comes highly recommended to one and all.
Out of 10: 9.4