by Steve Purcell
Someone once said, “All writing is rewriting.” Joel Levinson’s recently published novel was more than a decade in the making, and when the author told me how many drafts he wrote, I felt dizzy. But his hard work and perseverance serves the interest of the reader.
“The Reluctant Hunter” is a sweeping historical tale of war and love, a battlefield saga set during the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. It depicts how war tears asunder communities, pitting friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. Its power to move lies in the personal and finely sketched details of struggling to survive hunger and cold, and even what a young woman must do to supplant her lack of tampons.
There’s hatred and evil and ignorance and compassion and tenderness and hard-won redemption – plenty of suspense and more than a few surprises, too. “The Reluctant Hunter” is beautifully written, without being self-consciously literary or poetic. The descriptions are well conceived, with many nicely turned phrases: “jingling oddments” comes to mind.
Levinson, a semi-retired architect whose handiwork can be seen locally – the four entrances of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, for one place – spent much of his time on the book conducting research. In addition, the inspiration for the story, Levinson said, comes from conversations with a young Bosnian woman named Aida. Informally adopted by the Levinsons, Aida is a graduate of Penn Dental School, and, in the spirit of the novel, she, a Bosnian, married a Serbian and they have a child together.
The back cover of “The Reluctant Hunter” categorizes the novel as “military fiction.” That’s accurate but misleading, since it’s a story that appeals to men and women, young and old alike (as I said, it’s a love story). The first paragraph of the back page synopsis does give the reader a tantalizing glimpse of what awaits him or her without giving too much away.
“In the spring of 1992, as the formerly Communist country of Yugoslavia begins to disintegrate into mayhem, Jusuf Pasalic, a college-age secular Muslim, is surprised by a thundering knock at his front door in the hamlet of Klujc, Bosnia. Moments later, he is riding in a convoy of Serbian trucks transporting hundreds of Muslim men and boys to a concentration camp. After escaping, Jusuf is intent on returning to save his mother, a devout Muslim, before she too is caught up in a region-wide campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
Despite that Jusuf is a Muslim in Bosnia, there’s nothing exotic and little foreign about him. He’s a skinny boy, nicknamed “Shorty,” who likes girls and basketball and listens to Madonna and Michael Jackson. He’s a good student who’s protective of his mother and mourns his recently deceased father. He could be any kid from Philly or Brooklyn, Chicago or Los Angeles. He’s hard not to like.
As if being rounded up and sent to a concentration camp weren’t enough, one of Jusuf’s persecutors is Sasha, his best friend, who ironically loves to play the blues harp and sing Bob Dylan lyrics. Was Sasha his friend or his enemy? That question is the moral crux of the story and one that makes Jusuf half mad with rage and despair.
There’s a rule in screenwriting/playwriting: show a gun in the first act and it has to go off in the third act. That rule applies here, also, and it’s hinted at in the book’s title. Jusuf is the reluctant hunter, an expert marksman who hates guns and killing, even animals for sport or food.
The scene in the third act where Jusuf reluctantly fires his gun was inevitable, but the manner in which it played out took my breath away. If anyone makes a film of this novel, that fateful shot from an antique rifle will elicit a collective gasp from the popcorn eaters in the theater.
In the novel’s first pages, Jusuf wears a ring “hammered to shape from a misfired brass cartridge.” The ring was a gift from his beloved father whom he admired and feared. His father’s legacy is not his own, and that knowledge gnaws at the sensitive youngster’s spiritual core. Reverently he kisses the ring before handing it over to his yesterday-friend-now-enemy.
But in the end, when conscience comes into action, it’s his father’s example that allows Jusuf to fire the older man’s precious rifle and do the unthinkable. Add fathers and sons, and sons and mothers, into the thematic mix of this complex novel.
Any more and I’ll risk diminishing your pleasure in a good read, so I’ll say only this: Imagine a divided America where neighbor fights neighbor over resources and ideology and “The Reluctant Hunter” becomes more than just a novel about a war past but also an object lesson in the futility of hatred, anywhere and anytime.
Following “The Reluctant Hunter,” I’m reading a novel by a well-regarded literary writer, and it’s dull, flat and amateurish compared to Mr. Levinson’s achievement. Let’s hope the Chestnut Hill writer has another story in the works and it doesn’t take a decade to complete.
Steve Purcell is a Philadelphia writer. His young adult novel, “gutterpunk: from the streets to the heights,” will soon be available at all major e-book outlets.