Steven Kayevich's "Criminals and Demigods" bears the telltale signs of an overwritten first novel. It is unrelentingly didactic, the characters making the kind of set speeches that went out of literary favor in the 18th century. The plot line seems right out of a B movie: A priest goes to prison as a terrorist and emerges a professor of philosophy.
Yet this story is autobiographical.
A quarter of a century ago, Kayevich was the stuff of Chicago newspaper headlines. It was a long-running Cold War tale, proof of the bromide that truth can be stranger than fiction.
In 1979, Kayevich was about to go to prison for bombing the Northbrook home of a communist diplomat and plotting to blow up the Southwest Side social club of a rival faction of Yugoslav emigres. But sentencing had to be postponed when a fellow conspirator hijacked an airplane in New York, ordered the captain to take him to O'Hare Airport and, without success, demanded that federal authorities allow him to fly Kayevich off into freedom.
"I am sorry I was not here," Kayevich's co-conspirator, a factory worker, afterward apologized to the judge for missing the court date. "I was at my job. I am a professional soldier."
Indeed, that is how he, too, thought of himself then, Kayevich recalled. Like the hero of his novel, he was the pastor of a Serbian Orthodox church in Chicago. But for Rev. Kayevich, just as for Rev. Steve Stone, his fictional character, being a parish priest was a day job. His true passion was heading an underground group dedicated to freeing the homeland from Marshal Tito's dictatorship.
Kayevich was seated in the Bourbon Cafe on North Lincoln Avenue,, a rendezvous for the city's Serbian community, explaining why he turned to novel writing at age 65. "All these years, I've been preoccupied with the ethical issues of what we were trying to do," he said. "I needed to get it out of my system by setting my thoughts down in a book."
Kayevich has the look of a man preoccupied with heavy thoughts. He is tall and scarecrow-thin and habitually holds his head at a slight tilt, as if ruminating over some intellectual puzzle. He walks with mathematical precision, as if mentally pre-measuring every stride.
A setting for intrigue
A Hollywood set designer couldn't have provided a better backdrop for Kayevich to recount his life story. One corner of the smoky cafe was taken up with a drum set and music stands. Evenings, the cafe echoes with the oriental rhythms and mournful lyrics of Balkan music. But in early afternoon, the tables were occupied by a few older men idly reading newspapers from abroad or staring off into the middle ground. When Kayevich entered the cafe, some gave him a nod of recognition, as if remembering why his face was familiar. Perhaps for the same reason, others resolutely avoided making eye contact.
He shared a table with Dobrila Gajic Glisic, a Serbian author who wrote a book, "Secret Lives of Serbian Immigrants," (Great Lakes Graphics, 271 pages) about Kayevich and his benighted attempt to fight Tito's regime on the streets of Chicago. "He is thought of as a great hero in Serbia," Glisic said. She added that, for her own part, she thought Kayevich romantically naive to have assumed that a few patriots, in exile so far from the homeland, could bring down a powerful regime, like that of the Yugoslav communists. Yet simply for having fought against such overwhelming odds, while he may be an obscure professor in this country, Kayevich has not been forgotten in his native land, so many years after the fact.
"It all began when the editor of our Serbian newspaper and his little daughter were found murdered in his offices on North Avenue," Kayevich said. "At the funeral, some of us got angry and vowed something had to be done."
Accordingly, in 1977, Kayevich and about 20 others formed a secret cell dedicated to avenging the double murder. They were, he recalled, a ragtag group without much of an ideological common denominator. "Each one had his own grudge against the Yugoslav government," Kayevich said "Mutual enemies put us together, not mutual beliefs."
What they did share was a conviction that the editor, known for his fiery anticommunist editorials, had been killed by Tito's agents. What they didn't realize was that one of their members was a double agent working for FBI. His tape recordings of their meetings, filled with heated discussions of where to obtain explosives and how to make bombs, would be the highlight of the prosecution's case during their trial.
"Looking back," Kayevich said, "we should have known." The FBI's informer, Kayevich explained, was always egging them on. He'd ask leading questions, provoking incautious cell members to make incriminating speeches--right into the body wire the Feds had equipped him with.
Then too Kayevich was hardly a newcomer to the cloak-and-dagger netherworld. He was born in 1937 in Montenegro, a Serbian-speaking region of Yugoslavia, where his father had been a minor official of the pre- war royalist government. Kayevich grew up under the communist regime that came to power during World War II, and he took an instant dislike to its regimentation. He entered the priesthood precisely because Marxists vehemently opposed religion.
"Mine was a romantic religious involvement," Kayevich said. "In church, I'd add to my preaching of the Gospel a few words softly critical of Marxism." In a totalitarian country, even such a mild form of resistance can be dangerous and, in 1963, Kayevich was tipped off that he was about to be arrested. He fled to Italy, then to France and finally to the U.S., arriving in Chicago in 1965.
He found here a Serbian community of perhaps 100,000. Many were mentally camping out, so to speak, waiting for the communists to fall from power. Some were committed to personally quickening the process. "Some of our boys volunteered for the Vietnam War," Kayevich said. "They wanted to learn how to use explosives and heavy weapons, so they could liberate the homeland."
But as the years wore on, those would-be revolutionaries settled into jobs and family life. In Chicago's Serbian neighborhoods, there was less and less talk of bringing down Tito. Then came the murder of the newspaper editor, and the timetable of underground, anticommunist conspiracy--and Kayevich's life speeded up. On behalf of the cell, Kayevich met with members of the Serb underground in a New York City motel room, where he was given an automatic weapon and a homemade bomb in preparation for undertaking a "mission."
Yet something about the setup didn't look right, and at the last minute Kayevich and the others tried to flee. The chaotic scene that followed in the parking lot is vividly recounted in "Criminals and Demigods" (Upfront Publishing, 296 pages, $16).
"Hands up! This is the FBI!" roared a loudspeaker," Kayevich wrote in his novel. "Several cars, their tires screeching against the wet asphalt, headlights blazing, were closing in. Men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying machine guns were jumping out of their cars."
Scholar of freedom
Only three years before, Kayevich had realized a lifelong ambition, receiving a PhD in philosophy from DePaul University. Sitting in a jail cell at the Federal Detention Center after his trial, Kayevich found it hard to believe that he, a convicted terrorist, was one and the same person as the quiet scholar who had written a thesis entitled "Uncreated Freedom: The Origin of Being and Its Negation."
He told a reporter who came to visit him there: "And I questioned frankly, what happened to this person, Dr. Steven Kayevich, who never believed in these things."
Federal Judge Hubert Will gave Kayevich plenty of time to ponder that question: Kayevich served 6 1/2 years, much of it in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, having been convicted on several counts, including conspiracy to bomb Yugoslav diplomatic facilities and manufacturing electronic devices to detonate explosives. He kept to himself, worked as a prison clerk and spent his cell time reading. He worked his way through Plato's dialogues, with their accounts of Socrates, the philosopher given a death sentence by the Athenians.
"I said to myself: `Socrates was a perfect human being, and look what happened to him,'" Kayevich said. "`So since you are not so perfect, Kayevich, stop feeling melancholy about your fate.'"
After his release from prison in 1985, Kayevich found part-time work teaching philosophy, first at DePaul University and in recent years at Lewis University in Romeoville. His specialty is ethics.
Indeed, he doesn't stop considering moral issues when class is over. Of his underground-cell years, Kayevich sometimes thinks of them as an aberration, the result of letting the emotions overrule the intellect when the Serbian editor was murdered. Other times, he puts his conspiratorial days into historical perspective: In a time of struggle, when the other side is killing your people, the law of the jungle dictates fighting back.
Kayevich lives simply, often as a boarder, part-timers being at the bottom of the ivory tower pay scale. Once or twice, he has had a nibble at a full-time post at some school, but they inevitably fall through when a dean discovers he has served time. It's not a chapter in his life Kayevich brings up in class, but he doesn't shy away from it either. "When the subject is prison or being imprisoned," Kayevich said, "I'll tell the class I know something about that."
Katherine C. Delaney met Kayevich when she was the dean at Lewis. She recalls him as highly intellectual, very engaging in the classroom and especially effective with older students. "He had a great rapport with police officers enrolled in our criminal-justice program," said Delaney, who is now the dean at Barat College of DePaul University in Lake Forest.
Over the years, he and some of the FBI agents who worked his case have made contact with each other, Kayevich said. There is a curious kind of old-school tie between retired sleuths and retired terrorists, the hunters and the hunted. It is the leitmotif of his novel. "Criminals and Demigods" opens with the son of a former FBI agent seeking out Rev. Stone--like Kayevich, a priest turned terrorist turned philosophy professor. The young man wants to know what went on in those years when the Cold War had a second front among Eastern European exile groups in the U.S.
Stone/Kayevich proceeds to tell him, in a novelist form obviously indebted to Plato's dialogues. The young man asks questions, a la one of Socrates' disciples. Stone's answers mimic Socrates'--especially those the ancient philosopher gave when, sentenced to death, he was asked if he had any regrets about how he chose to live his life. "A man must struggle in defense of his freedom and dignity," Stone says, "even if he has to renounce his earthly logic and refuse to trade his conscience for daily bread."