The Willys Dream Kit by Jan Novak (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 320 pp.)
“He would suddenly be playing soccer with a soft hadrak under the blooming cherry trees of his hometown. . . . Or chewing his dinner, he would dream that he was trying to pawn the violin expropriated from La Belle Epoque to his old music teacher, who now appraised large radios at Cash in a Flash downtown, while outside, Russian tanks, looking like miserable little electric shavers in the vast scale of the skyscraper canyon, rolled through skid row.” Such sentences and images are typical of “The Willy Dream Kit,” Jan Novak’s first novel. Novak, a Chicago playwright and ethnic journalist, emigrated from Czechoslovakia. “The Willys Dream Kit” apparently draws on this experience, but it is not autobiographical. Centered on a man identified only as Svoboda (the most common Czech surname), it tracks its protagonist across Europe and America by relentlessly racing through sensations and events. Svoboda becomes, in succession, “the kid with flame-thrower eyes,” poet, banker, proud owner of a white Willys jeep, “prefab American,” Yankee gambler, philanthropist, and pyromaniac. His wanderings take in Prague under the Nazis, Prague under the Russians, a squalid refugee camp, a Chicago dry cleaner, Las Vegas, and a mental hospital. One hears a few echoes of Gunter Grass, but nearly always the voice is Novak’s own. It is a mature and accomplished voice, shrewd and sharp-edged even when lost in reverie. There is something Czech in the way this novel swings between the gross and the comic--something of Chicago, too, in its tall-tale cartooning, vitality and furious pace. The book’s worth reading, and let’s hope Novak writes more.