Suffering from PTSD, survivor’s guilt and grief over the loss of his wife, Vietnam veteran Stan Przewalski is tethered to the world by a single fraying thread — one he has tried to sever completely on more than one occasion. As his war flashbacks accelerate and his grip on reality deteriorates, his life seems to be on an inevitable track toward destruction. Then he meets Chaz.
Chaz is everything that Stan is not — he’s joyful and quirky and brimming with life. He isn’t plagued with guilt or endless grief, he’s free-spirited and carefree. He has a penchant for old rock tunes and doles out marvelous and witty repartee.
Unfortunately for Stan’s fragile sanity, Chaz also happens to be a talking gopher with otherworldly powers who is on a mission to go to war with the developers in Stan’s small town. Clearly, Stan is not experiencing the most lucid phase of his life if he’s befriending anthropomorphic rodents. Yet, as the story unfolds, it seems that this particular divergence from reality might just be his ticket to redemption.
As far as plot devices go, a magical gopher is a pretty strange choice for a writer to leverage. However, The Gopher King author and longtime Colorado resident Gojan Nikolich says there’s a method to this madness.
“I wanted to demonstrate the human capacity for mental perseverance against all odds — even if it means creating an alternate mental reality that gets you through the tough times,” says Nikolich. “This is how Stan compensates: by creating absurd humor to help him fight his demons and soften his guilt about his war experiences. Chaz the gopher is the alter ego through which Stan explains himself.”
Nikolich, an Army veteran himself, isn’t exactly a stranger to avant-garde tactics. When he worked as an executive at a global advertising agency in Chicago, he once arranged for a fake shark to swim beneath the Michigan Avenue Bridge to promote Universal Studios’ JAWS movie exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
“I basically hired a scuba diver and had somebody make a fake shark fin. The Chicago River is dirty enough where you can’t really see what’s going on and I told the diver to swim underneath the Michigan Bridge at high noon when there were thousands of people walking around.” He laughs, adding, “The police took exception to that.”
Nikolich says the police also took exception to the massive traffic jam he caused by having the giant mechanical shark for the exhibit driven uncovered on a flatbed truck through downtown during rush hour. But, as he points out, it got the job done.
The Gopher King gets the job done, too. Nikolich’s particular brand of dark humor is quite inviting for those who find solace in laughing through pain. There’s no question that the subject matter of war and PTSD is difficult, but the discomfort is frequently soothed with Chaz’s levity-in-fur routine. The result of this careful combination is a book that takes the reader on a fascinating and extremely thought-provoking romp through the fantastic and the fatalistic.
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