Who knew — almost 30 years ago, when Thomas Pynchon's masterpiece "Gravity's Rainbow" assailed us with its alarmingly memorable first line "A screaming comes across the sky" — how that envisioning of chaos come again would resonate across the decades?
From the trajectory of that then-ultimate weapon the V-2 rocket, casting its shadow across Europe and a shrinking world at war in the 1940s, we have progressed to the events of September 11, when the Twin Towers went down, another screaming ripped across the expanse of a confident land and all the old nightmares crept back into our stunned and traumatized national consciousness.
Just as Don DeLillo's edgy, elliptical dramatizations of technological threat, conspiracy and paranoia have emerged as the truest successors to Pynchon's encyclopedic cautionary tales, so does his masterly 15th novel loom (the verb seems both appropriate and inevitable) as another "Gravity's Rainbow": Writ small, yet resonant and capacious with sorrowful insight, implication and judgment.
Mr. DeLillo's restless intelligence and sedulous quest for appropriate forms has been evident since his books began appearing in the 1970s. From the picaresque "road" novel "Americana" (1971), he moved to a satiric comparison of football to nuclear warfare in "End Zone" (1972), visions of both marital and commercial solvency eroding in "Players" (1977) and a rich exploration of the pursuit of knowledge as conducted by an adolescent mathematical and scientific prodigy in "Ratner's Star" (1976).
Nothing if not versatile, Mr. DeLillo found time to publish in 1980 an affable pseudonymous comic novel about the National Hockey League's (fictional) first woman player ("Amazons" by "Cleo Birdwell").
Then Mr. DeLillo entered his great period, producing no fewer than five superb novels in 15 years. With a cunningly structured, disturbingly suggestive portrayal of emergent international terrorism ("The Names," 1982), he began to concentrate on the ubiquity of the impulse to infiltrate and destroy, e.g., the "Airborne Toxic Event" that confirms the worst fears of an embattled Professor of Hitler Studies in the award-winning "White Noise" (1985), then a mordant look into the ravaged mind and heart of Lee Harvey Oswald in "Libra" (1988).
The ironic allegation that terrorists have replaced writers as cultural spokesmen animates Mr. DeLillo's best novel (a personal opinion), "Mao II" (1991) — though many would give that title to his 1997 blockbuster, "Underworld," a lavishly imagined, paranoid history of the Cold War years.
More recently, Mr. DeLillo confirmed his reputation as a matchless miniaturist with the eerie NYC fable "The Body Artist" (2001), then nearly surrendered it with the trite, superficial satire of "Cosmopolis" (2003), arguably his worst novel.
The new "Falling Man" plays to all of Mr. DeLillo's strengths. No contemporary writer shows a surer grasp of the unease with which we all live now, in a time of compromised moral values and ideologies; failed communication at every level of familial, communal and political life; and fearful distrust of anything or anyone foreign or "different."
It begins "afterward," with a quietly horrific image of New York City's streets shrouded with smoke and pocked with rubble, through which an initially unidentified man stumbles, carrying a briefcase that isn't his own. We quickly learn that the South Tower has just collapsed, that he — only slightly injured though severely disoriented and traumatized — is an attorney named Keith Neudecker and that he will instinctively return, not to his own living quarters, but to the home of his wife Liane, from whom he has been separated for more than a year.
The novel then settles into a rhythmic alternation of terse scenes focused on their past intimacy and incompatibility, present cessation of hostilities as Keith's need to heal hesitantly asserts its priority and future directions taken hopefully, as each seeks a pathway out of the surrounding ruin.
Over a period of three years, we observe this splintered family become a microcosm of a wounded society reaching for renovation and definition. Keith finds the woman to whom the briefcase belongs, learns that she wants, needs to "tell him everything" about her own loss and grief, and he impulsively begins an affair with her. Liane, a volunteer worker with a group of Alzheimer's patients, finds no comfort in her efforts to reunite people lost to themselves, only cumulative intimations of her own increasing physical frailty and mortality.
Parallel false steps and uncertainties are located in the failing energies of Nina's sophisticated mother, Nina Bartos, and Nina's longtime lover Martin Ridnour, a globe-trotting art collector and dealer whose fatalistic old European sensibility both masks his own compromised history and sounds as ground-theme to the crumbling lives of those he touches — and in the experiences of the Neudeckers' young son Justin, who shares with his playmates nightmarish fears of a threatening figure they call "Bill Lawton" (a mishearing of "Bin Laden" — and one of Mr. DeLillo's most brilliant inventions ever) while using Keith's binoculars to scan the neighborhood skies ("[T]hey're looking for more planes. Waiting for it to happen again.").
Another parallel narrative follows the path trod by Hammad, an Iraqi true believer, from his time in Hamburg studying engineering and architecture, briefly questioning the mission to which his culture has committed him, finally boarding the plane that will bring him and it to fulfillment.
The scenes featuring Hammad feel obligatory and somewhat forced. But Mr. DeLillo succeeds spectacularly whenever attention is focussed on the novel's eerie (initially unidentified) title character, a performance artist who is glimpsed repeatedly all around the blighted city, hanging from buildings, overpasses and bridges: A cryptic living (dying?) memorial who recapitulates the experiences of the victims of September 11, and a haunting symbol of the vertiginous unknowable future out of which he seems to have somehow emerged.
For "falling" men and women are everywhere in this novel: Keith losing himself in the high-risk world of international poker tournaments, Liane reliving the declining momentum of "her" old people, our children settling into passive acceptance of the likely worse to come, Hammad obediently choosing death as an avenue to the vague promise of something better than life.
In many ways the culmination of Don DeLillo's eloquent depictions of America in extremis, this dangerous little book is a veritable Trojan Horse: An irresistible gift, which we might have wanted to wait, before opening it, for the bomb squad to arrive. Its pages sear the reader's hands, but few will want to stop compulsively turning them.
Bruce Allen reviews contemporary and classic fiction for several newspapers and magazines. He lives and writes in Kittery, Maine.