Falling Man, by Don DeLillo
Reviewed by Rema Walker
To date, the 21st century has been defined by the greatest act of terror in America, the attack on the World Trade Center, where the emphasis lies in this book, as well as the Pentagon attack and the brave people on Flight 93 who died to prevent suicidal terrorists from destroying yet another important target.
Americans moved from the attitude that nothing could hurt us on our home ground to the horrifying reality that anything can happen at the hands of terrorists and assassins. In several of his past novels, DeLillo has dealt with global and personal tragedy, Libre, for example, being one of the best novelistic treatments about John Kennedy’s assassination I’ve ever read.
Several novelists have approached 9/11 in the recent past, as though some time had to go by before such writing could be done. DeLillo brings it home, personalizes it for us, through his characters; how better to untangle the horrors, feelings, impact of what happened than through people we can come to know.
The book opens with the event itself and with Keith, badly wounded, surviving, running away from it along with many other people through the rubble and smoke, and soon the horrendous sound of the falling tower. He wades through the discards of shoes, broken glass, debris of all kinds, and then he sees a shirt falling down out of the sky, the shirt that symbolizes the death and destruction all around him.
Instead of going to a hospital to have his wounds tended, he goes to the home of his estranged wife, Lianne, and his son, Justin. Through this family and through the fate of Keith’s best friend, Rumsey, we learn how people obsessed, behaved, and tried to get back to “the other life”, the ordinary ways they existed in the world before 9/11 changed them forever.
Lianne, of course, takes Keith in, cares for his wounds, and spends the rest of the novel trying to reconcile herself to this new person in her life, different from the man she married. And while Keith has to work out his own terms in which to live, she also has to deal with the new things that torture her and make her someone else as well. Also touched by the tragedy is their young son, Justin, who with his friends secretly searches the sky for more planes sent by “Bill Lawton”. Their lives are changed forever, none of them are all right, and somehow they must struggle to come to grips with what the tragedy has done to them.
Suddenly, there are stories about a falling man wearing safety gear, who plunges headfirst from various buildings throughout the city as a kind of performance, reminding people over and over of what had occurred. Lianne has the misfortune to witness one of these acts which are never announced, but happen spontaneously all over New York City.
It is not until the near end of the book that Keith, who habitually disappears to Vegas to gamble, knows he has to return to what happened, to what started him on his journey down the tower stairs, to the white shirt falling out of the sky, to the fate of his best friend and his return to his old home and family. Only through reliving what really happened to him can he find a way to live with his family in the world forever changed.
As matter-of-fact as DeLillo’s prose style is, the reader easily detects the heartbreak that all people suffered: survivors and those no way near the inferno. Lest we forget. ~