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Much heralded as an important novel from a well known contemporary writer, FALLING MAN has been greeted with mixed reviews. And I think I would best describe my reactions as mixed, as well. There have been other published novels using a post 9/11 theme, and while DeLillo's name and reputation certainly draws attention to this book, in my view the others I have read more than hold their own when compared with THE FALLING MAN.
A main character in of DeLillo's novel has just reached the street level of the building in the World Trade Center where he worked, and has managed to move a few blocks down the street when the building comes crashing down. In the confusion which follows, he makes his way north through Manhattan and knocks on the door of his divorced wife's apartment. Startled and grateful to see him alive, she takes him back into her life and her bed, and for the rest of the novel he makes his home with her and their son.
The title comes from the periodic appearances of a fictional performance artist who shows up from time to time on Manhattan streets, dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, who jumps head first and hangs suspended by a safety harness concealed beneath his clothing. Few will need to be reminded of the grim photographs of persons leaping from the top floors of the towers to escape the flames and hasten their deaths.
DeLillo uses interwoven flashbacks, forward jumps in time, as well as straight narration to tell his story. The importance of memory is a theme woven through every page, along with the capricious nature of luck and circumstance. Poignant memories of a weekly poker game enjoyed by a group of men, not all of whom survived that grim day, haunt one of the characters. A woman works as a free lance editor and volunteers for a senior center, leading a journaling class for a group of newly diagnosed Alzheimer's patients. She cannot come to terms with her father's suicide, after receiving a similar diagnosis. Two persons who worked in the towers meet when some personal items are recovered, and share a brief sexual relationship - they find that only with each other can they talk about the events of that day and the harrowing trip down the endless staircase. Eventually the husband who survived and whose escape opens the book becomes a regular in Las Vegas casinos. It seems he can only feel comfortable in an impersonal world where luck and chance rule the day, and where players always lose.
The somewhat jerky pace of the book comes to abrupt and chilling coherence in the last ten pages, when DeLillo finally turns to portraying what the moment of impact must have been like. At that point the experience of reading the first two hundred pages comes close to seeming worthwhile.
Afterword - I would like to refer readers to SMALL TOWN by Lawrence Block, ABSENT FRIENDS by S J Rozan, THE ZERO by Jess Walter, and ONCE IN A PROMISED LAND by Laila Halaby. I've read all of them and wished that more mention of their existence had been a part of the discussions I read in various newspaper reviews of DeLillo's book.