Thursday, October 05, 2006

Book: The Zero, by Jess Walter (2006)

It’s funny how you can have a proprietary interest in a writer. That’s how I feel about Spokane-based Jess Walter. I’ve been reading him since he started as a novelist, with Over Tumbled Graves and the heartbreaking Land of the Blind. He took home a much-deserved Edgar Award last year for Citizen Vince, and I thought: I knew him when. Sort of.

His follow-up novel, The Zero, is big, ambitious, and wild. How ambitious? It’s billed as a novel of September 12. How wild? It’s a comedy in the Joseph Heller mode, one of the blackest hue. It’d have to be.

New York cop Brian Remy was at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. He goes to work assisting in the clean-up until he shoots himself in the head. He’s pretty sure it’s an attempted suicide. But he doesn’t really know. Remy doesn’t really know anything anymore. He’s suffering from gaps in his memory, waking up in the middle of situations with no clear idea of how he got there.

That condition makes him the ideal candidate to undertake certain tasks for a top secret branch of the Office of Liberty and Recovery, charged with tracking down every piece of paper blown out of the Twin Towers.

Walter had a front row seat for much of what occurred in the wake of the attacks because he was helping then-NYC police commissioner Bernard Kerik with his memoirs. That access informs the book’s scabrous take on those early days. Politicians milk the tragedy for every advantage. Police officers complain about which celebrities they’re assigned to squire around Ground Zero, with Sarah Jessica Parker outranking a Yankees middle reliever. And the emotions stirred by events are commodified before they’re understood.

The book’s righteous anger finds the perfect vehicle in Remy’s stop-and-start perspective. It effortlessly conveys the nagging sensation that Remy – and the rest of us – have become caught up in something sinister without any understanding of what it is or how it can be stopped. The book’s sole misstep is a beautifully-wrought but on the nose paragraph that articulates:

“the general incongruity of life now – the cyclic repetition of events on cable news, waves of natural disasters, scientists announcing the same discoveries over and over ... wildly famous people who no one could recall becoming famous ... as if some faulty math had been introduced to all the equations, corrupting computer programs and causing specious arguments to build upon themselves, and sequential skips – snippets of songs sampled before their original release, movies remade before they came out the first time, victories claimed before wars were fought.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel like that all the time. Jess Walter wrote my favorite novel of last year, and he may have written my favorite of this one, too.

Update: Brief Hiatus

Time to head to New York for a little business and a lot of relaxation. Internet access remains a question mark. In the meantime, head over to the Links page and visit any of those fine bloggers. They’ll take good care of you.