Jeff Jackson’s novel Mira Corpora caught our eye immediately after it was released, and didn’t disappoint. It featured a shifting structure, vivid and surreal imagery, and a command of mood that was sustained throughout the novel, and it marked Jackson as a writer to watch. We checked back in with him about a theater project he was involved with in 2014, and this year brought with it news of his next book, a novella called Novi Sad. We’re pleased to present an excerpt from it today.
WE’RE SLOW TO RECOGNIZE THE SIGNS. The reports of trash-soaked rivers that burn for months, the footage of barking infants stricken with distemper, the photographs of thousands of dead swallows swept into towering piles. We’ve paid so little attention to these portents it’s only natural that we also ignore the significance of the silver key. It dangles from a long chain around Hank’s neck. He strolls into the squat after several days absence. Without greeting or explanation, he places a chair in the center of the dank concrete floor and climbs onto it. He brandishes the silver key in front of us. “I come bearing good news,” he announces.
Hank tells us he’s made friends with the owner of a dilapidated hotel. “The place is perfect,” he says. “I’ve arranged for free rooms for all of us.”
We’re annoyed by his dramatic entrance, but we’ve also grown tired of this cramped and filthy basement. So we keep listening.
“Best of all,” Hank says. “The hotel is in the middle of Novi Sad.”
The name pricks our ears. It’s the worst area in the city, known for its cratered sidewalks, sprawling rubble lots, tenement buildings shorn of their facades. Residents have been fleeing the area for months.
“It’s time to head straight into the heart of the annihilation,” Hank says.
The idea has instinctive appeal. We grant him our full attention.
Hank clears his throat, a transparent affect that’s still effective. “The dress rehearsals are over,” he says. “We’re about to face the real thing. The end of the world is almost here.”
His words ring in the air. We wonder if they’re too good to be true.
“We’ve got the chance,” he says, “to create our own perfect finale.”
We vowed never to be suckers for another of Hank’s schemes, but this one answers a deeper need. Even Blue, who knows his follies better than anybody, goes along without objection. I can’t decide whether she’s swayed by the idea, Hank’s considerable charms, or the overriding desire to make sure he sticks around. Without a word, we throw ourselves into packing. Soon we’ve stuffed our satchels full of clothes, selected a few sentimental keepsakes, and abandoned the basement squat.
We follow Hank across the city, skirting official barricades and sliding under make-shift fences. As we march deeper into the heart of the ruins, the escalating scenes of destruction reinforce our sense of mission. Markus and I run ahead, crouching behind abandoned cars, scouting the battered terrain, keeping watch for the volunteer militia. The few uniforms we encounter don’t attempt to stop us. We’re the only ones heading in this direction.
The shabby hotel is one of the few buildings in this patch of Novi Sad that remains untouched. The two-story concrete structure is built in the style of an old motor lodge. There are no interior hallways and the numbered doors of the rooms all face the sidewalk. The hotel’s powder blue paint has started to peel and fade, but within these ruined blocks the cerulean hue stands out like a beacon.
Hank leads us up the outdoor staircase to the second floor and toward the corner room. I can see from Rupesh and Lena’s scribbled expressions they harbor serious doubts about what might happen next, but the silver key slides into the rust-coated lock with only the slightest rattle.
* * *
We take turns with sledgehammer. Markus has the honor of the first swing, aiming a precise blow at the back wall. A crack sprouts and spiderwebs throughout the white paint. Lena hits a glancing jolt that leaves a furrowed fissure, which Rupesh widens into an actual crevice. Flecks of plaster start to powder the air around us. Blue places her hands high on the handle, like she’s choking up on a baseball bat, and smashes the wall several times. She’s gripped by a quiet rage that doesn’t subside until she’s broken through to the other side. A ghostly yellow light filters through the fresh hole. She hands me the sledgehammer. It’s heavier than it looks. I try to put my weight into the swing, but I’m too tentative to do much damage.
Hank stands back and assesses my blows. “Come on, Jeff,” he says “Why so shy? Worried about waking somebody up?”
“Guess I’m still getting the hang of it,” I say. “I’m not used to being loud and breaking things.”
“Make some noise,” Hank says. “We’re here to break everything.”
We haven’t encountered another soul in the blue hotel since we arrived. In fact, we’ve hardly spotted anybody in the entire neighborhood. People here seem to surface only to populate the few bodegas that open like night-blooming plants.
The hole is almost finished. Markus patiently chips away the rough edges, widening the opening. There are no doors to connect the rooms, so we’ve decided to engineer our own portals. One by one, we hunch our shoulders and step through the wall. The next room looks almost identical with its industrial brown carpet, wallpaper patterned with beige octagons, and sagging queen bed covered with a bright green blanket. The only difference is the erotic oil painting hanging above the bed, this one depicting a nude young woman wearing a blindfold. She has short-cropped brown hair and stands with both arms stretched out. Her pixyish face is lit by an expectant and radiant smile. She gropes toward something just beyond the frame.
“Three more to go,” Hank says. He walks across the carpet and removes the mirror from the far wall. He takes several rattling swings with the sledgehammer. The more the wall shakes, the happier he seems. Hopefully he hasn’t hit anything load bearing.
Piles of white plaster steadily amass on the floors. Rupesh hits a pulverizing blow, knocking loose another huge chunk. Chalky dust circulates through the air, coating the furniture and lining the folds of the moth-eaten drapes. It leaves a fine powder on our skin. Lena admires her even paler complexion. “We look like ghosts,” she marvels. Blue inspects each of the rooms as they’re opened up, making sure the electricity and water function, taking special note of the closet space.
After we’ve breached the last room, Hank steps inside its bathroom. He stands in the pink tub and begins to knock a hole in the ceramic tiles. “For emergencies,” he says. “Never know when you might need extra access.”
We assemble in the corner room to admire our handiwork. Hank has lined up the holes so we can see clean through the walls to the final room. There’s a distant view of a muted television set whose images shudder and shift like a mirage. As we move closer, we can make out miles of flooded landscape. A few rooftops peek out through the deluge. The camera focuses on a single submerged house, lingering on its glistening black tar shingles. If I stare long enough, I wonder if I can see the water rise.