Aleksandar Hemon's 'Zombie Wars' springs to humorous life unexpectedly

Aleksandar Hemon, considered a 'serious' writer, creates a wild, funny ride, complete with zombies

At first, Joshua Levin may seem familiar: He's twentysomething, working but careerless, not able to commit to his pretty, mature girlfriend. His type — the aimless, amiable manchild — can be found throughout American culture, including in the films of Judd Apatow and in a swarm of Brooklynites' first novels.

What makes Levin stand out is that he's not a stand-in for his creator. In fact, Aleksandar Hemon, born and raised in Sarajevo, is channeling an American everyman and doing it with a giddy, empathetic humor. Levin may find himself surrounded by hard-drinking, emotional former Yugoslavians — the kind who've populated Hemon's other books — but he's bewildered, left out, distractedly wondering if he should or shouldn't sleep with that buxom student.

Set in Chicago in 2003, "The Making of Zombie Wars" tells the story of Levin, an adult ESL teacher and amateur screenwriter who feels "there was a solid case to be made for … a life arranged around the absence of hope and ambition." He lives in a crummy apartment, begrudgingly meets his affluent dad for lunch, and even more reluctantly spends time with his bitter mother and sister. Add to that Kimiko, his tidy child psychologist girlfriend, and everyone around Levin is more grown-up than he is.

The one thing that distinguishes him is his screenwriting habit. He takes screenwriting classes and, as he moves through his days, he converts what he observes into movie ideas. Generally, they're perfectly awful: "Script Idea #69: An S&M male porn star falls in love with a gentle poetry professor. When she is kidnapped by his jealous fan, he needs not only to save her but tell her the truth about his life. It turns out she loves to dominate. Title: These Chains of Love."

With his cascade of rotten ideas, it's a good thing that Levin is creatively constipated, rarely writing even a few pages. He can while away hours trying to achieve the perfect coffee shop caffeine balance. His most fruitful effort is "Zombie Wars," a zombie movie that he builds out scene by scene, in script pages in the text, as the novel progresses.

Levin is an appealing guy, wryly funny, who deep down isn't all that good. He really, really wants to cheat on his basically perfect girlfriend. He can't bring himself to make an important, overdue phone call. If you had a crisis with your pet, you shouldn't count on him to do the right thing.

The people on the periphery of his life move into center stage and drive him to become the more outrageous version of himself. They include Bega, a fellow aspiring screenwriter who has great stories from his experiences in Yugoslavia during its collapse; his English-language student Ana, who has a looming, thick-necked husband; and his landlord Stagger, a sword-wielding veteran of the first Gulf War who is one-third obsessed with Levin and two-thirds insane.

We see how Levin's life informs "Zombie Wars." Sometimes it's simple, like a bartender with a goiter showing up as a zombie-battling soldier. Sometimes it's deeper, reflecting his anxieties about family and betrayal. It's a small nod to the interrelationship between fiction and real life. But Hemon, a MacArthur "genius" grant fellow, isn't doing a meta-fictional dance. He's more concerned with (subtly) making us laugh.

At one point, Levin winds up phenomenally stoned; while it's not explicitly said, it's clear from his spilling, meandering thoughts. "Where was the fattie? And while we're at it, where's everything? The moment you lose sight of it, it vanishes. Where are people when they're not here? Where does the time go when it passes? What is the home of death? What is a nightingale?"

Like the 1985 Martin Scorsese film "After Hours," "The Making of Zombie Wars" puts an everyday guy in manic, absurd circumstances that snowball into more absurdity. Levin, who is so passive that all of his sex fantasies are about women putting the moves on him — "the aphrodisiac of someone else's courage" — starts taking action. The results are never what he expects.

Even Hemon's agent didn't expect him to write a humorous novel like this, which, he notes in the acknowledgments, he sprang on her only after it was done. His last was a serious essay collection, "The Book of My Lives," which concluded with the devastating story of the death of his young daughter. His 2008 novel, "The Lazarus Project," was a finalist for the National Book Award. Neither foretold "Zombie Wars"; while peppered with musings of death, Spinoza and war, it is definitely lighter. It's a delightful ride through an ordinary life kicking into high, crazy gear. With zombies.

The Making of Zombie Wars
A novel

Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 320 pp., $26

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