One of the memorable images seared into the world's consciousness on September 11, 2001 was that of a solid carpet of charred, crushed and torn paper covering lower Manhattan as the twin towers fell and spilled their contents into history.
Now, four years later, it almost seems as if a second such carpet, composed of all the books dealing with that day, is in the making. That carpet is steadily growing --- but few of its strands will have the stark immediacy, the sheer gut-wrenching pathos of Marian Fontana's story.
Fontana is no ordinary housewife. She is an accomplished writer, actress and one-woman-show comedienne with an iron will and lots of media savvy. Her story may resemble many others that stem from that awful day, but she tells it with unsparing frankness and high literary polish.
After the initial shock and devastation of losing her husband Dave on their eighth wedding anniversary (they had spoken on the phone just before the first plane hit and were planning to meet ten minutes later) wore off, Fontana was energized by the city's announced decision to close the Brooklyn firehouse where he was stationed. He was one of twelve firefighters from that station who never returned from Ground Zero.
Outraged, Fontana swung into activist mode, gathered allies among other instant widows, and fought back. She became a celebrity of sorts, and eventually the president of an organization representing all the 9/11 families --- survivors alike of firefighters, police and "civilians."
Her book follows two parallel tracks --- the political-bureaucratic labyrinth that brought her into contact with Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, Senator Hillary Clinton, Tom Brokaw and other power brokers, and the trajectory of her personal grief, which is bathed in tears and grounded in deep personal support from relatives and friends.
The reader, even as he is deeply moved by her story, begins to wonder about the level of detail in this book. Fontana recalls verbatim every conversation, minute details of clothing, tones of voice, interior decorations, visual impressions, names, dates, and places. Either Marian Fontana has an extraordinary memory or she has exercised some writerly license here, conveying basic truth by embellishing it for the reader.
There is a large cast of supporting players whom the reader must work diligently to keep track of. Fontana's family and in-laws bulk very large, as does a neighbor and fellow performer identified only as Jason. Dave Fontana's firehouse buddies are sketched in telling detail --- but for me at least, the most appealing portrait is that of Fontana's bright-eyed five-year-old son Aidan who asks innocently when the family dog dies "How come everything dies on us?"
This sharply observed book shows the reader the easy camaraderie of firehouse life, the natural suspicion and antipathy between the firemen themselves and the downtown bureaucrats who make departmental policy, and the inevitable tensions that develop between grieving survivors and the ever-intrusive media. There are memorable set-piece scenes --- an angry meeting with city officials, a drunken and disorderly benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, the eerie moonscape of a Staten Island landfill where some suspected that bodies of loved ones had been dumped, and a television show on Fox whose host had no clue about the feelings of her guest.
There are descriptions of funerals that might grow repetitious were they not so keenly observed by Fontana, who is a half Jewish lapsed Catholic. There are oceans of tears and wild grief-induced outbursts.
Fontana herself emerges as an emotionally fragile woman, well-educated and successful but simply unable to cope with the collapse of her whole world in one short morning. She can be rendered helpless by her grief one day, but somehow able to stand up to unfeeling city officials the next. Her story, no matter whether every detail is remembered with total accuracy, is uncommonly moving.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 24, 2011