November 26: “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” by Josip Novakovich

Hello, Story366! I hope you’ve had a good … Saturday? Yeah, I guess so: Saturday. Today was Day 8 of my nine-day Thanksgiving Break and it’s felt like Saturday for about five days now. I suppose it should feel like a true Saturday because I watched a college football game today—Ohio State vs. Michigan—and those are only played on Saturdays. It’s the first college football game I’ve watched this year, as I’ve been busy with Story366 and the Cubs and other such stuff. If I was going to delay watching a game this long, at least I waited for a good one, as #2 Ohio State came back to beat #3 Michigan in double overtime. For eighteen years, I lived in Bowling Green, Ohio, which was pretty close to the center point of these two schools and was a dividing line, of sorts, of allegiance. I went to Illinois—which doesn’t really exist on the college football radar—so I never really cared who won between the two teams that routinely pounded the Illini year after year. Today, that held form, as I could make arguments as to why I wanted each to win. I lived in Ohio for so long, I couldn’t help but develop a bit of a homer attitude, though on the other hand, I’d visited both Columbus and Ann Arbor multiple times and enjoyed Ann Arbor considerably more. In the end, I’m glad I watched a good game, and perhaps, while filling the time until the Cubs to start up again next year, I might just watch another.

More commonly this year, I’ve read short stories, including a few from Josip Novakovich‘s collection Salvation and Other Disasters, out from Graywolf. I’ve met Novakovich several times, first when he read at Bowling Green (in the nineties … yeesh I’m old) and then several times at conferences and such and always counted on him for a good, friendly conversation about writing and Eastern Europe. I’ve not spoken to him in quite some time and haven’t read much by him lately, either, so it was good to get back to him and read some of his stories today. From Croatia, Novakovich writes a lot about his home country, about growing up as well as more contemporary issues. The story from Salvation that sticks out most today is “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail,” so I’ll write about it.

“The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” is about this kid growing up in the mid-sixties in Croatia (then still a part of Yugoslavia) who likes to go to the movies. The story opens with him, eight years old, going to a movie with his brother, only to run out of the theater, screaming, when a locomotive barrels down on them from the screen—the kids didn’t know the difference between movie and reality. It’s a funny opening scene, but sets the tone, sets up a metaphor, for the rest of the story.

The kid, terrified at first and then embarrassed about what he did once he realizes it, avoids movies for a year, but then returns with gusto. His older sister goes all the time, and so does he, only since movies cost money and he doesn’t have any, he and his cronies stage elaborate schemes to get inside for free (okay, sometimes they use the old trick of having one kid pay then open the fire door for the other kids, which isn’t very elaborate or schemey). They see all kinds of movies, from Cleopatra to the James Bond films, and more often than not, can see the whole thing before they’re discovered and kicked out.

One catch to all of this is the kid’s dad doesn’t want him to go to the movies, as he believes the are the devil’s doing, a sentiment backed up by the family’s church. By all their accounts, kids see people do bad things in movies and then the kids go do the bad things themselves. It’s not an unheard-of philosophy, as it’s one my own mother adopted for many years—in fact, she still doesn’t like when we watch anything R-rated when I’m visiting, the utterance of the word “fuck” still shaking her to her core. But in any case, the kid in “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” is forbidden from going to the movies, but goes anyway (sort of like how I watch R-rated stuff, with the sound down, me sitting right next to the TV, at my mom’s house, me in my forties …).

What’s interesting about where Novakovich goes next is that the kid’s dad is kind of right about what would happen. The kid sees a heist film and soon after fashions himself a master thief, ripping off people at the market (on top of his movie theater break-ins). It’s not like he sees a Western and then goes and shoots up a saloon, but there’s some definitive modeling going on, a pretty direct correlation between what he sees on the screen and what he does with his free time. I won’t reveal anything else about this piece, leaving you to discover it on your own, but it’s an interesting investigation into not only a unique-to-me place, but also of an era, kids sneaking into the picture show, just to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor’s hips. Novakovich certainly catches an era, a mystique, a culture, and I liked this story a lot.

A lot of the stories in Salvation and Other Disasters are a bit weightier than “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail,” many dealing with the Yugoslav Wars, which were still raging when Josip Novakovich wrote these stories and released the book. It reminds me of when I saw Mrs. Miniver for the first time, that British movie with Greer Garson about the bombing of England by Germany, the surviving characters in the film praying together at the end of the film in a bombed-out church. It dawned on me during the end credits that this movie, out in 1942, was conceived, released, and seen while World War II was still going on, that there was still a distinct possibility that England was going to lose the war. Heck, most of it was probably done before Pearl Harbor’s attack brought the U.S. into the fray. I get that same feeling from Salvation and Other Disasters, that Novakovich is a reporter as much as he’s a storyteller here, capturing a tense moment in his country’s history before the story was close to being finished. That sense of urgency, of immediacy, can be felt in Novakovich’s work, making for a unique and powerful read.