There’s a difference between escaping and riding off into the sunset, Adios, Cowboy’s protagonist Dada muses. And she would know a thing or two about both—her father fell ill and died suddenly; her brother committed suicide; and her country, Croatia, is still reeling from its war to gain independence. Dada flees, seeking asylum in metropolitan Zagreb, away from a sister who speaks mostly in cruel barbs and a mother who’s barely holding herself together in the wake of so much tragedy.
The book takes place not in Zagreb but in the Old Settlement, Dada’s going-nowhere hometown somewhere on the Adriatic coast, upon her return. It’s a strange place in an uncertain nation. “A traffic accident in our country,” Dada thinks, “is death by natural causes.” In Celia Hawkesworth’s translation, Savičević’s prose elevates the Old Settlement from merely a backdrop to a character. Graffiti in the city reads, “Stranger, the law does not protect you here.” The local bar is named the Last Chance. A piece of graffiti is nonchalantly described as being on the wall “behind the Table of Lies.” All the seagulls are called Martin. The local ruffians are the Iroquois Boys. Most of these things go unexplained and without comment, keeping the world uncanny but in a way that emphasizes how normal it is for the characters inhabiting it.
Unfortunately, for the first half of the book the delightful world building supplants a lot of the book’s tension. Most of the plot takes place in the second half—like Dada the reader spends a lot of time wandering around the Old Settlement, reeling and on the verge of disbelief. At one point, after describing a catalog of overly distinct characters in the Last Chance, Dada asks herself, “What film was this?” A question important to the reader as well, as it seemed like Savičević had just led us through a contained little set piece, one only distantly related to the narrative thread. When the plot does show up, though, it weaves together past and present in a devastatingly consequential way, full of ghosts, regret, and Dada’s always poignant self-examination.
Part of the world building involves American westerns. Dada’s father was obsessed with them and they seem to be an undercurrent that runs through all of the Old Settlement. The way “cowboys and Indians” are revered in the Old Settlement serves as a clever, useful mirror for the mythic sense of the Croatian setting itself. American pop culture is peppered throughout the text: many western directors are mentioned, so is Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, and Kurt Cobain. Like the setting, the characters treat these icons as normal reference points, but they effect a little unexpected bump for the reader, one that’s illuminating and satisfying.
Almost all of the main characters are avoiding, deflecting, denying the emotional ruin that they feel all around themselves. I yearned more and more as the story progressed for Savičević to break through these layers of armor and expose the rawness that’s constantly hinted at. Those moments happen rarely, though. My favorite character, Dada’s sister, is incredibly fascinating. Unlike Dada, she stayed in the Old Settlement. Her first line of dialogue is about geophagy: eating dirt. She serves as a sort of Greek chorus, constantly telling Dada what she doesn’t want to hear. At the end of the book, though, she still remains in this position, on the margins of the story, trotted out to deliver a brilliant line and then vanishing offstage again. We know as much about her in the first ten pages as on the last.
While her characters sometimes feel inert, Savičević deftly handles the realities of being fully present in the modern, online world. Too many books either ignore the internet or beat you over the head with its inclusion. This novel does neither, nor does it quarantine the internet to a single chapter made up of emails or chat messages. Instead, the internet is always there, just as it is in reality: amateur pornography shown at a party, YouTube videos on equal footing with television, the inclusion of emoticons as the norm, text messages, etc.
Savičević is also a master at sudden jumps that sound absurd on the face but fit very naturally into the story. In the opening pages, she leads us from the death of Dada’s great grandmother, to Dada discovering her first pubic hair, to the aforementioned scene where amateur pornograhy is viewed at a party, all in the span of four pages. When describing a boy, Dada imagines what her sister would think, then what her great grandmother would think, then what Freud would think. Right after a party for a hotel that’s been built by “Super Mario clones” and has in attendance a woman in a wedding dress homemade from gauze and polyester, Dada gives an unexpected delightful monologue on the impact of growing up in the age of “now-forgotten technical appliances” like camcorders, Walkmen, and floppy disks, devices that “would so quickly and definitively end up in a museum.” Unspoken are the webbed connections of allusion between the uncertainty fostered by the technological marvels of childhood becoming obsolete and the situation in Croatia.
There are moments when the narrative of Adios, Cowboy reaches and falls flat—the language is stretched to a loss of meaning, like when a character “smiles like a pile of gelatin” or cries “milligram tablet tears.” At other times the ambition of the writing hurts the work as a whole, with the witty dialogue and entrancing setting creation delaying the plot a little bit too much. When the prose lands, though, it’s reminiscent of Renata Adler or Lorrie Moore: breathtakingly brilliant with comedy made especially sharp through ubiquitous, underlying tragedy.