By Heidi Simmons
Turns out that not all of the living dead are Zombies. In Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages), one man discovers he is actually alive after being close to death.
Joshua Levine is a 33 year-old screenwriter living in a crummy part of Chicago. He has hundreds of movie ideas and has written over 40 screenplays. Unfortunately, not a single script has been sold or, for that matter, read. That’s because he doesn’t dare send anything out.
At night, Joshua teaches English as a Second Language in the basement of a community center. His students are mostly Eastern Europeans he can barely understand. Joshua lives in a crappy apartment with an insane landlord who has a bizarre crush on him and likes to smell his dirty underwear.
Once a week, he meets with a group of buddies to workshop screenplays. But they are less than helpful and completely uncreative. However, Joshua has one idea that he thinks might get traction, assuming he can even finish the script he calls “Zombie Wars.”
As Joshua struggles with his screenplay, he also struggles with his life. He has a Japanese girlfriend, Kimmy, who is a successful child-psychologist and likes her sex rough. Joshua is happy to be having any kind of sex at all — even if he must nearly suffocate to orgasm with her.
When Ana, a Bosnian immigrant flirts with him after class, resist as he might, he eventually succumbs to her passion and has sex with her. Assured by Ana it was no big deal and that she will never tell her husband, Joshua is confident he can move in with Kimmy and life will be better than ever.
Ana’s husband, an ex-Bosnian Military Police officer, does find out, and he confronts Joshua. Just when Joshua thought it can’t get worse, his landlord jumps in to help, amplifying the violence.
Joshua is a secular Jew and not remotely religious, but is easily offended by anti-Semitism. He often quotes fake scripture or phrases that sound like something God would say in support of his position. He longs to be chosen and take his place at the table, which God has prepared for him.
That doesn’t happen exactly like he wants. However, after some loss, pain and suffering, Joshua does discover he has become a man. With this new revelation about himself, he is going to put things right. Of course, this only makes matters worse. But Joshua survives the mayhem to finally sits down to enjoy a family Seder. He feels alive for the first time.
If you’re looking for a book solely about zombies, the zombies in this book only appear between chapters. As the author shares the un-life of Joshua’s sad existence, and his subsequent maturity, he includes small excerpts of Joshua’s screenplay. Major Klopstock is the protagonist in his script who must save whatever humans might still be alive, even if he knows it will cost him his own life.
As Joshua’s miserable life gets out of control, so does Major K’s in his screenplay. Characters who show up in Joshua’s life start to appear in the script – good guys and bad.
Indeed, the zombies do eat the brains and guts of the living and somewhere in there is the theme of Joshua’s existence. He’s not stupid or lazy, he’s not demanding or needy, but somehow those around him seem to suck the life from him.
Author Hemon is smart and hilarious. His descriptions are rich, smooth and filled with sensory overload as he effortlessly drops us into Joshua’s pathetic world. Although this is a simple story about boys who behave badly, Hemon ups the stakes with the zombie metaphor of just how we move through life without really living. I laughed out loud. This is a fun summer read.