a novelist as fine as Don DeLillo addresses the events and
aftermath of September 11th, readers of literature take notice. In
FALLING MAN, the author has chosen a narrow focus on two New
Yorkers, a couple named Keith and Lianne. Keith works in the World
Trade Center and escapes death by making his way down the
stairwell, one of a terrified crowd. Covered in glass shards and
other people's blood, a dazed Keith finds himself on the doorstep
of his estranged ex-wife. Together they walk to a hospital, where a
doctor who is "propelled by events and could not stop talking"
recounts as a curiosity the incidence in bombings of organic
shrapnel, pellets of human flesh that get driven into the skin.
"This is something I don't think you have," he says, tweezing glass
out of Keith's face.
Lianne is glad to have Keith back, for her sake and also their son
Justin's. However, over the course of the novel, we come to see the
accuracy of Lianne's mother's assessment of Keith as a disaster of
a husband. In the confusion of the attacks, Keith ends up with a
briefcase that belongs to a woman who worked a couple of floors
from him, a fellow survivor. They are drawn together to rehash
events, as if to make them real. This intimacy becomes sexual, a
fact that Keith doesn't share with Lianne. Keith lost several of
his poker buddies in the attacks, and he becomes increasingly
fixated on the game, spending weeks in Las Vegas and leaving Lianne
and Justin to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, Lianne worries about her mother's failing health and
does her own share of acting out --- with a fellow tenant who plays
Persian music constantly, whom she punches in the face at her own
doorstep (with no apparent consequence). Along with many of her
fellow New Yorkers, she is outraged at a performance artist who
appears dressed in a suit and tie, suspended upside down --- "the
single falling figure that trails a collective dread, body come
down among us all." Meanwhile, the boy, Justin, watches the sky
with binoculars and whispers of a man named "Bill Lawton" coming
back to destroy the towers; he refuses to accept that they are
already destroyed. He decides to speak exclusively in words of one
In a DeLillo novel it doesn't much matter whether you like any of
the characters, but I do like Lianne's mother. I like her stubborn
certainty of her own opinions. Lianne meets her mother's train at
Grand Central Terminal and observes, "People are leaving, you're
"Nobody's leaving," her mother said. "The ones who leave were never
"I have to admit, I've thought of it. Take the kid and go."
"Don't make me sick," her mother said.
The other main characters tried my patience. I don't need to like
them, but in their disjointed dialogues, obsessions and
self-involvement, Lianne and Keith never really come to life. They
seem to signify something, like the Falling Man, but through pages
of self-absorbed action I waited in vain for some evidence of
transformation. I longed for more characters, more context,
something to come from the suffering. Perhaps this is a point the
author wishes to make --- that an event of the magnitude of 9/11 is
nothing more than its collective effect on thousands of Keiths and
thousands of Liannes.
Still, DeLillo can't be beat for the odd dry detail. We learn that
Keith compulsively and secretly corrects the spelling of his name
on mail --- except for "outright third-class indiscriminate
throwaway advertising mail…Junk mail was created for just
this reason, to presort the world's identities into one, with his
or her name misspelled." He is very good at conveying a sense of
the immediate aftermath of the attacks. "The dead were everywhere,
in the air, in the rubble, on rooftops nearby, in the breezes that
carried from the river."
DeLillo is a master of non sequitur, and overall FALLING MAN is
interesting if not compelling. Perhaps he is warning us when, early
in the book, Lianne considers two still-lifes by Giorgio Morandi in
her mother's apartment: "Let the latent meanings turn and bend in
the wind, free from authoritative comment."
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 21, 2011