To Prague, With Love

Robert M. Eversz
Gypsy Hearts
Grove Press

ACTION: IT WAS a dark and stormy Prague night, the kind of weather only whores, pickpockets, and drunks went out in. Whichever sort approached as you trudged across the Charles Bridge, you'd better be careful. Unless, of course, the thief was you...

But no: The story begins much earlier. It was a starry summer evening, and the crowd gathered on the bridge was singing "Hey Jude" off-key. Cheap Moravian wine passed hands amidst the babble of six different European tongues. Suddenly, all the lights of Prague Castle flicked off at once. It was midnight, and you were alive. For the moment, that is...

CUT! Shut up already, you pretentious cow. OK, OK. Better. Now, insert here about six more pages of cliche-ridden false starts and reflexive commentary from the author/narrator. In this way, demonstrate that you are a Clever Postmodern Writer. Set your story in Prague, of course, and Budapest for extra intrigue. Throw in lots of kinky sex and violence, a few knowing observations of Czech society, and then watch the lit-babes come running.

Gross, right? Fortunately, not all of Gypsy Hearts is this self-conscious. But the reader must jump through all kinds of literary hoops to get to the core story--which, it turns out, is a superficial fantasy about Prague expatriate life.

Of course, by 1997 the Young Americans in Prague story is long dead--an annoying footnote to the fall of Communism. It was moldy back in 1993, though that never bothered the countless American journalists who flew into Prague for the weekend, chatted up a few stooges for sources, mentioned the "Ghost of Franz Kafka," and churned out piles of tired copy for their slow-witted editors. (I watched this process repeat itself ad nauseum during a three-year stint over there writing at an English-language newsweekly.) Because of the media distortions, because of the "Left Bank" nonsense, because the reality behind it all was genuinely compelling, I had assumed Gypsy Hearts would at least tell it like it was. I should have known better--if only from the dedication: To Prague as it was then. Pardon me while I lose my lunch, my breakfast, my passport and all my traveler's checks.

The problem lies with the narrator, Nix, a vile chap who never becomes even perversely likeable--a grave failure of imagination since Prague is and was infested with endearing creeps: from the Miles Davis-look-alike vampire queen to the vaguely mafiosi CNN cameraman. Nix is supposed to be a fresh arrival from L.A., a twentysomething grifter who poses as a Hollywood screenwriter while he seduces and then robs various women. He's smooth and usually gets what he wants.

And that's the strange part: Nobody moved to Prague from America without spending the first year screwing up constantly. You got lost as a matter of course, and were ruined by dysfunctional phones. You discovered that mail from the States had been pre-opened for you, and did laundry in the sink with shampoo. You fought an epic pollution-induced cold, and ended each night bone-tired, often weepy with frustration. You also fell dizzy, confronted daily with vistas of almost laughable beauty. My point: Prague is no mere "setting" for a story; the place pounces into the foreground of your life and refuses to budge for a long time.

Instead, Eversz glosses over frumpy reality to focus on hot sex, cool crime, and the supposed Freudian maze within both Nix's psyche and that of his girlfriend Monika. These two rut, rob and kill their way from Prague to Budapest; as such, the plot offers all the gritty realism of last summer's Mission: Impossible.

Eversz tries hard to distance himself from Nix through oblique commentary, yet these moments of insight come off more as confession. For example, Nix, as narrator, describes a screenplay idea: "'[It's] about two young Americans who con their way through Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.' The perfect pitch line! Love, intrigue, an international backdrop as big as the end of history! I had to restrain myself from grabbing pen and paper and beginning to write." Apparently not. Or this: "I had expected events that evening to follow my plan, but like the film scripts I attempted to write, my plan was incomplete and unrealistic, no deeper than the one-line concept to which I reduced all ideas." Should it be any surprise to learn that, in fact, Eversz himself is an aspiring screenwriter?

It's not that I want some pouting laundry list of Prague's oddities--the expat open-mic poetry nights produced enough of that. And, of course, crime is integral to post-Communist economies. Furthermore, I kind of admire Eversz for not trying to tell everyone's story. But something about Gypsy Hearts is disingenuous and tedious. Like Nix, Eversz buys into the Hollywood notion that violence and crime make a plot worthwhile, with or without engaging characters, and regardless of plausibility. He's also afraid to admit that he likes Nix on some level (which he better if he's devoted a novel to him). Thus, we never learn to care about the protagonist, and feel we can't trust the author. If film is to be Eversz's inspiration, he should study Tarantino. By going deeper into his characters' daily lives, observing the details more closely, and daring to show some affection for these jerks, he might have produced a story worthy of its setting.

 
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