While it doesn't exactly possess the most exciting subject matter or narrative style out there, Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project is the rare book that manages to defy literary conventions while remaining firmly grounded in the real world and telling a coherent story (two, in fact) to boot. Starting with a real historical event--the 1908 shooting death of a young Jewish immigrant and pogrom survivor named Lazarus Averbuch under disputed circumstances in the home of the Chicago police chief--Hemon's story quickly sprawls out in all sorts of directions, defying easy description as it folds in upon itself and absorbs multiple story threads in the process. The aftermath of Lazarus's death, with his sister Olga left to fend for herself, his fellow Jews hounded and villified, and Lazarus himself labeled an anarchist assassin and denied a proper Jewish burial, serves as an occasion for Hemon to examine the uneasy relationship the United States has long had with its immigrant populations and anti-establishment political movements. Following his speculative retelling of Lazarus's shooting, Hemon joins his story to that of Vladimir Brik, a married Eastern European writer living in present-day Chicago who becomes fascinated with Lazarus and returns to Eastern Europe to delve into both Lazarus's roots and his own. Linking two separate narratives by such a tenuous thread is a move most authors probably wouldn't dare try, but to Hemon's great credit he keeps both plots moving along even while pursuing different aims with each.
Those strongly opposed to introspection and navel-gazing in their novels would probably be well-advised to look elsewhere, as much of Brik's half of the book is laden with his ruminations on subjects ranging from the state of his marriage to the religious beliefs of his in-laws and his own family, but at least no one could accuse Hemon of being a slave to formula. Besides, The Lazarus Project quickly establishes Hemon as a prodigiously gifted writer, able to make a description of a death-defying high-speed car trip through Eastern Europe as harrowing and immediate as that of a brutal pogrom. The story itself is a decidedly unique mix of fact and fiction, taking a real event as its basis but quickly expanding its focus to encompass times, places, events, and thoughts that are only tangentially related to the shooting death of a Jewish immigrant in 1908 Chicago. Whether describing a Chicago laden with poverty and class struggle or an Eastern Europe teeming with gangsters and prostitutes, Hemon shows a keen insight into human nature and a knack for wordplay that rivals that of the late, great David Foster Wallace.
In a well-executing balancing act, Hemon turns the story of Olga Averbuch's attempt to navigate the difficult days after her brother's death into both a wrenchingly personal tale of loss and grief and an unvarnished snapshot of the American political landscape of 100 years ago. If Hemon's goal in retelling the aftermath of Lazarus's death was to illustrate how little (if at all) human nature has changed in the last century, he's done a more than commendable job. Much like Dennis Lehane's also-excellent The Given Day, The Lazarus Project takes readers through an early-20th century urban landscape where mutual mistrust, guilt by association, and a with-us-or-against us mentality rule the day. Not surprisingly given the focus of the story, Hemon's sympathies seem to fall largely with Olga and her fellow impoverished immigrants, but he does also manage to capture the very real fears of foreign ideologies that overtook the country at the time. Depending on one's perspective, the assistant police chief who relentlessly pursues the case against suspected subversives after the shooting and the Chicago Tribune writer who covers the pursuit in a fashion completely devoid of ambiguity or doubt could come off as either noble heroes or hopelessly naïve capitalist dupes, which is a testament to the moral grayness that covers much of the book.
Back in the 21st century, the book sees Brik embarking on the titular project along with Rora, a fast-talking, vaguely mysterious ex-war photographer whom Brik know back home and meets back up with in Chicago. In spite of the nominal purpose of their visit, thoughts of Lazarus are generally kept in the background as Brik and Rora's voyage becomes part buddy/road-trip comedy, part self-examination (for Brik anyway) and part exploration of their native region's volatile history and bleak present. Hemon makes up for the relative lack of narrative thrust in Brik's story by populating it with memorably humorous incidents and colorful characters, none more so than Rora himself, a practically larger-than-life figure whose exaggerated experiences, penchant for deception, and prodigious appetites make him a worthy counterpart to his more subdued traveling companion. The jokes, asides, and stories of questionable veracity that fill the trip eventually become as important as its ground-level view of 21st-century Eastern Europe (the references to Jesus as "Mr. Christ," for one, never stop being funny).
Suitably, the two parallel stories are told in starkly contrasting voices, with Brik's enjoyably sardonic, digression-laden first-person contrasting with the more narrowly-focused and matter of fact third-person (with occasional breaks for hyperbolically patriotic and anti-subversive Tribune editorials) that characterizes the Averbuchs' unfortunate story. The feeling of being a stranger in a strange land that pervades both stories and provides an important thematic link, as Olga Averbuch struggles in a new homeland that's not quite hers, while Brik surveys an ancestral homeland that bears little resemblance to his adopted one. Neither story comes to a particularly expected conclusion, but in a book this resolutely non-formulaic that's not exactly a disappointment. I definitely won't be holding my breath for the movie version.