THE MAKING OF ZOMBIE WARS by Aleksandar Hemon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $29.99.
Whenever Joshua Levin, the Chicago-based protagonist of Aleksandar Hemon's comic novel, "The Making of Zombie Wars," is feeling especially besieged -- which is often -- his inner hack comes up with ideas for movies that'll never get made, even if their concepts sound hokey enough for a midlevel Hollywood studio to schedule a phone meeting.
Take (or don't) Idea # 58, which comes to him while having lunch with his father: "A mob informer, knowing that his lunch partners will take him out after dessert to clip him in a forest preserve, leaves a million-dollar cocaine package as a tip for the pretty waitress. She is forced to go on the run from the mob. Title: To Insure Promptness."
Actually, that's one of Joshua's better ones. But he's neither writing nor living through that scenario in "The Making of Zombie Wars," the last two words of which make up the title of a script he's trying to finish. Meanwhile, he's teaching English-as-a-Second-Language classes; placating his bickering family; dodging psychotic displays of swordplay from his unhinged landlord, Stagger, a Gulf War vet; and keeping his brainy, self-possessed girlfriend, Kimiko, satisfied with soft-core S&M rituals.
Not what you'd classify as a normal life, but at least it's not boring. Yet a dreary cloud of disquiet and ennui hovers over Joshua as he shambles from his classroom of motley, mostly Slavic refugees to a writing workshop whose moderator offers little more than abuse and finally to a dimly lit corner bar where the Cubs seem to be losing on TV every night. Maybe that's why Joshua's chosen zombies as subject matter. (Write what you know, right?)
Then, suddenly, our disaffected hero finds himself in an erotic clinch with one of his students, a sultry Bosnian refugee named Ana, who finds in "Teacher Josh" a pliable warmth and kindness absent from her hulking, brutish husband, Esko. The latter's skill at casually, bare-handedly breaking a cat's neck is enough to make Joshua second-guess Ana's offer of love and release.
These events and their ensuing, often violent consequences are juxtaposed with pages from "Zombie Wars," with the presumed intent of demonstrating how movies can only approximate the stakes of "real life" at its most perilous and crazed. Yet as manic and maniacally funny as some of the events are in "The Making of Zombie Wars," chaos overpowers comedy toward the end, making it at once less serious and more solemn in execution. In short, it stops being much fun.
Still, up until that point, Hemon, himself a Bosnian expatriate whose considerable reputation rests on ruminative inquiries into the dislocated lives of war refugees both in novels ("The Lazarus Project," "Love and Obstacles") and in essays ("The Book of My Lives"), shows how much fun he has seasoning his empathy for alienation with absurdist slapstick. One can't help thinking of the acerbic wit and outrageous characterizations found in novels by Junot Díaz and Gary Shteyngart, though there's a stronger undercurrent of melancholy swirling beneath the struggles of Joshua, Ana and even wild-eyed Stagger to transcend the uncertainties of post-Millennial life and figure out the differences between what you settle for and what satisfies you.
And as for whether the book will make a good movie or not . . . well, you know they just don't make movies like this anymore. Or do they?