Suicide bombers are a fact of life in the contemporary world. They are rarely political zealots, though they are recruited by such. They are the easily led, the disaffected, the mentally disadvantaged members of what Karl Marx referred to as the lumpen proletariat. The fact that attacks by these individuals, unfortunately led astray, have not been successful in the United States has been the direct and proximate result of the internal security that the chattering classes have demeaned almost from its inception; still, sooner or later, one will succeed here. And it will probably unfold in the manner described in 31 HOURS, Masha Hamilton’s brilliantly understated novel.
Jonas Meitzner is the prototype useful idiot of 31 HOURS. Hamilton creates a picture of this twenty-something disaffected youth perfectly, without resorting to caricature. One cannot read a paragraph or two about Jonas without immediately recognizing him as one of the many graduate students who one will trip over when walking more than 20 feet in any direction. As the book opens, Jonas’s mother, Carol, realizes she hasn’t spoken to her son for a while and senses something is wrong. Anyone who is the parent of an emancipated offspring will know this feeling immediately; one either gets it or doesn’t, and as painted by Hamilton, it is entirely believable. Carol stews for a bit, and then turns to Vic, Jonas’s longtime friend who has recently become his lover. Vic, wrapped up in preparation for her debut as a classical dancer, realizes even before Carol contacts her that she also hasn’t seen Jonas lately.
It turns out that Jonas has deserted his own apartment for an Islamist safe-house apartment. First attracted to, and then recruited by, Masoud, a Wahabi terrorist, and now cut off from everyone, Jonas is physically and mentally preparing himself for a political statement that will take place on the streets of New York at the end of the novel. He hopes his parents and Vic will understand.
Jonas’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother is a sculptor, and his father is a failed artist turned successful (or maybe not) gallery owner. Their relationship is slippery and ill-defined, yet somehow still there. At one point, Carol confesses to noticing a change in Jonas over the few months leading up to the events that unfold, yet marked it only in hindsight. Vic has recently moved out of her parents’ house, and her father has done the same, abandoning a comfortable home to live in what would have been called at one time (uncharitably but accurately) a slum. She is wrapped up in her career as well, and is able to give only scant attention to Jonas and her younger sister, who is on the cusp of adolescence and probably affected most of all by her parents’ separation and her mother’s mental decomposition.
Vic’s life is seemingly solid at the center --- her upcoming performance is sure to be a winner --- but is fraying badly at the edges. She perhaps has the best chance of stopping the fateful journey that Jonas has chosen to take, yet abandons it in worship of the god of political correction. It is ironic, then, that the only characters in the novel with any sort of structure to their lives are Masoud and Sonny Hirt, a street person by choice who senses that something dark and terrible is about to take place.
The conclusion of 31 HOURS is as stark and quietly terrifying as anything I have read recently, not only for the abruptness of its ending but also for the realization that it is but one of several stories momentarily alluded to yet not told. A thriller in every sense of the word, it is also a work of literary fiction, a cautionary tale for the times taking place somewhere at this moment and for the foreseeable future.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010