Aleksandar Hemon’s previous books, which include 2008’s “The Lazarus Project” and story collection “Love and Obstacles” (2009), are serio-comic stories of Bosnia and Chicago, the author’s two homelands.
His latest novel, “The Making of Zombie Wars,” is in some ways a departure — the protagonist is not Bosnian, and the novel lands firmly on the comic side of things — but it, too, contains the dark, philosophical undercurrents that contribute to Hemon’s signature style.
Joshua Levin is a wannabe screenwriter in Chicago with an unstable retired-Marine landlord and a very together girlfriend. When Ana, a beautiful Bosnian woman in the ESL class Josh teaches, comes on to him, conflicts and violent high jinks ensue.
If that basic premise (hapless American male pursues sex and belatedly comes of age) sounds like the elevator pitch for next summer’s raunchy rom-com, you’d be right. The novel knows this about itself. Movies are a key theme; each chapter is preceded by a page from Joshua’s screenplay, an action movie called “Zombie Wars.”
It’s a fun concept and a breezy read. But it feels a bit like a short story expanded to the length of a novel. The plot never attains the hilarity of a farce, nor does it invite enough emotional investment to be a serious novel.
The appeal of “Zombie Wars” lies rather in the little things. Individual scenes are immersive and entertaining, especially a dinner party at Ana’s house filled with Bosnians, a couple of Russians and Josh, the fish out of water.
The prose is delightful, in the least pretentious way possible. Much is written about Hemon’s non-native speaker’s ear for a turn of phrase, and this book is full of little flourishes — linguistic callbacks and sentences that mix the beautiful and the vulgar.
Hemon is a writer who can get away with calling a cleft chin “mandibular cleavage” and, in the same book, write a sentence like: “The spring had hit the ground running: the sunlight bent at an angle more favorable to all the warm colors, the shadows were sharper and leaner, the trees were taking their leaves seriously.”
The zany circle of characters who surround Josh (including many Bosnians) lets a little air into the story, adds some gravitas and some humor to a structure that otherwise seems over familiar. “Zombie Wars” may not be a masterpiece, but it leaves you feeling that Hemon may have one up his sleeve.
“The Making of Zombie Wars,” by Aleksandar Hemon (320 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26)