As you might have guessed, the characters in Tumbleweed are always in motion. Sometimes literally, as with a hitchhiker in the title story, who has come to an abrupt stop and views the world differently from his sudden stillness.
“Through the tinted glass, I beheld quite a sight before the I-80 exit: a mobile home lay atop a crushed pickup, and an intact grey snowmobile stood beside them, like a faithful dog waiting for its drunk master to get up from the ditch.”
That’s a great image, isn’t it? And you’ll notice that the drunk master is presumed to be in the ditch. Not on a sofa, not even a lumpy one. Not tucked into the corner of a booth in a bar, not even a dingy one. No, there is a literal fall. Downwards.
Not that anyone can fall upwards, of course, but there is an upwards. There is a definite hierarchy in Josip Novakovich’s fictions.
“I admired the city cats. Each enclosed yard, constituting about a quarter of the city block, with apartment buildings encircling it, contained a whole cat culture: the strays, who lived in a variety of holes, in the garbage dump; the indoor-outdoor cats; and the purely indoor cats, who stared out like privileged Americans in a gated community, scared to get out into the rough world.” (“A Cat Named Sobaka”)
Some of the characters in Tumbleweed are reporting from the other side of that gate, but most of them are inhabiting the open spaces and the limbos.
Sometimes their movements are both literal and figurative (often these situations are designed to make the reader smile):
“Schubert moved him. I read somewhere that Bach moves plants. Schubert rooted our rat to the spot, making him tremble to the harmonics of minor keys, raising his hairs, so that he resembled a hedgehog. Now and then he stood on his hind legs, and put his paws together like a squirrel praying for a pistachio. Perhaps he would have clapped his paws, but didn’t dare out of piety for the music.” (“Strings”)
You can imagine this Schubert-loving rat residing part-time in that aforementioned gutter. Josip Novakovich is not afraid to look closely at the things that others consider unseemly.
And sometimes the movement is entirely figurative. As, for instance, the fall from sober to inebriated.
“I had a glass, and Jon had the rest of the bottle. It was quite refreshing, pretty dry and yet fruity with hints of apple and persimmon. Jon gulped and then smiled so that his eyes vanished for a while in the folds of his cheeks, and his moustache spread like the wings of a bird over Texas.” “Tumbling: Croatia”
Although I’m including this passage more for the language than for the theme, for the hint of imagery which is conventionally associated with ideas about freedom but appears more often in this collection with a sense of confinement and limitation, futility and struggle.
Either way, it leaves a taste in your mouth, doesn’t it? The flavour is simply but thoroughly described.
Change and transition, adaptation and the complex shifts between past and present: Tumbleweed preserves the nearly vanished.
“In the Balkans, nothing vanishes completely. In my hometown, people give directions like this: You go two blocks past the oil refinery, and then one block up, past the military barracks, and then turn left…The oil refinery shut down a long time ago, as have the barracks, but in people’s minds it’s all still there. For a newcomer it’s maddening, but for the people who call it home, perhaps it’s comforting to use, in the midst of all the changes, the map of the old town, from fifty years ago. The old town is still stronger than the new one.” (“Café Sarajevo”)
Often these stories are uncomfortable and haunted by a quiet longing. At times, I was longing for a story to be finished. But, then, at the end, I was struck motionless. Brought to a standstill while the emotions were all a-swirl.
Contents: Tumbling: Belgrade, Tumbleweed, Easy Living, Strings, My Hairs Stood Up, Tumbling: Daruvar, Byeli: The Definitive Biography of a Nebraskan Tomcat, Stalin’s Perspective, Son of a Gun, Tumbling: Maine, Zidane the Ram, Putin’s Dry Law, A Cat Named Soboka, Crossbar, Tumbling: Croatia, Prepaid Reservation, Café Sarajevo
Tumbleweed‘s superpower is its ability to pivot.
Josip Novakovich offers you the seat next to him, and sometimes carries on an ordinary conversation while he drives, other times he throws on the brakes or jerks the wheel to one side unexpectedly. He’s not above driving on the shoulder either, the darts of thrown gravel pinging off the floorboards beneath your feet. The 2017 jury may have included the collection because they appreciate the value of moving erratically through some highly emotive territory, but neither of the short story collections which were longlisted were advanced to the shortlist.