Salvation and Other Disasters

Possibly no character since Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man has more powerfully combined the odd acceptance of bodily decay and infirmity with the wages of identity dysfunction than the unnamed narrator of “A Free Fall,” perhaps the most wrenching of the stories in SALVATION AND OTHER DISASTERS. An unnamed, barely middle-aged narrator ruminates over the left foot he lost at his “unprofessional” birth. Made of splendid oak, his artificial foot is not only no less “natural” than his natural one but less of a “pest”—without in-grown toenails, athlete’s foot, and assault by sweaty sock. He is far more attached to his detachable foot than to his biological. In his gypsy village, a gimpy beggar can make more than an able-bodied one. With him, from “sperm to worm,” the normal would be abnormal.

So it is with most of these stories. In “Sheepskin,” a war victim confesses to murdering the wrong man in what he thinks is an act of justified vengeance, then pursues his victim’s widow. Josip Novakovich turns in “Bread” to a time a decade before he was born and squatter’s rights skirmishes between Germans and Soviets for Balkan villages. Ivan is a Croatian Home Guardsman—under the Nazis—until successive displacements make him a baker and save his life, “for even this army loved bread.”

Several stories of emigres in America perhaps best illustrate the paradox of the book’s title. “Rye Harvest” is the tale of an immigrant desperately seeking security who finally reaches the United States only to learn he will be immediately deported. “The End” examines the tenacious culture shock of a Croatian family. Whether anecdotal or fabulist or narrative-driven, the stories are the self-contained works of a master storyteller. Novakovich does not regard his techniques as trade secrets. Besides a previous collection, he has written two helpful workshop guides for writers.