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Darkness visible

From the ashes of 9/11, DeLillo assembles a shattering portrait of a tragedy's aftermath

(MICK WIGGINS)

Falling Man
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 246 pp., $26

The literal translation of natura morta is "dead nature," but the phrase is an artistic one, the Italian terminology for still life. And like so many of the details and sly metaphors of "Falling Man," it is a spare, near-perfect evocation of both the sacred and the profane -- of the now-legendarily blue September morning in New York when so much was immortalized by death. Coming a literarily decent six years after the fact, "Falling Man" will be called Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel; the fact is that no one has done it better or probably will. The book is classically spare, haunting, and treacherously elegiac -- treacherous because there isn't an ounce of sentimentality or cliché anywhere near, so it has the force of stone falling through space. To call it beautiful is to diminish its steadfastly unbeautiful stance, but what it accomplishes is an unwavering cello concerto to life, to some necessary essence of dignity.

But this is DeLillo, so the heroism and humanity are couched within ordinary foibles and non-tragic defeats, the emotional efforts and disconnects that take up so much space in the days. None of which mattered on that pre-autumnal morning, during which "Falling Man" opens with this straightforward assessment: "It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night." One of the few who walk away from the tower s that day is a 39-year-old lawyer named Keith Neudecker , separated from his wife, Lianne, for more than a year and living a minimalist existence in an apartment near the World Trade Center. In the hours after the blast, when a stranger stops to give him a ride uptown, Keith -- covered in ash and blood and memory -- gives his estranged wife's apartment as his address.

The title of "Falling Man" evokes the iconic photograph, taken on 9/11 by an AP photographer, of a man's plunge from the towers; the picture is so stark and upsetting that most US newspapers ran it only once. Here DeLillo has embraced the image rather than the thing itself: the near-unbearable free fall in comprehension that the picture would mean for its witnesses, seeing "figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space." The bulk of the novel unfolds in the days and then months after 9/11, cross-cutting between Keith's and Lianne's perspectives with brief, unsettling forays into the mind of a boy training in suicide missions abroad, wearing a plastic key around his neck to open the door to heaven. Hammad, too, is a falling man: "He flew through the minutes and felt the draw of some huge future landscape opening up, all mountain and sky."

Like the sculptor who decides upon which 95 percent to omit, DeLillo has created a tableau of specificity and poetic anguish, all of it bearing the themes that have dominated his fiction over the years: the play of art and memory, the miracles and limits of language, the meaning of things trumping the things themselves. In the collective aftermath of the attacks, Lianne lies awake in the middle of a New York night, finding car alarms -- the sweet fact of a simple auto theft -- reassuring; after weeks of functioning with kindness and grace, she physically attacks a neighbor for playing the wrong kind of music. Keith, having returned to the true comforts of a half-good marriage, seeks out a woman who shared his experience that morning in the long march down the stairs: "the deep shafts of spiraling men and women." Justin, their young son, begins enacting a thriller-fantasy with his friends in which the towers have not yet fallen; it involves binoculars and a man named Bill Lawton -- a creepy reconfiguration of bin Laden that is chilling when realized. Lianne's mother, a retired academic, prefers the analytic and interpretive realms; the woman's lover is a half-shady European art dealer who assumes an infuriatingly cool, global position on the attacks. Each of these characters occupies a particular thematic space in the novel; together, they create a portrait so rich and evocative that it feels like a close-focus map of the human condition.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Lianne's personal history. Her beloved father, an architect, shot himself with a hunting rifle when she was 22; he had just been diagnosed with senile dementia and wanted to go before the condition won out. Now Lianne runs a support group for Alzheimer ' s patients who meet each week to share their frustrations and try to find some hope, or at least pleasure, in the narrative they have left. They keep journals. "I didn't see them holding hands," writes one woman. "I wanted to see that."

A few moments in "Falling Man" possess such resonance that they recall the day of 9/11 itself; more difficult and admirable, DeLillo locates and discerns the intricate tapestry of what tomorrow would mean after that day. There is always the one brilliant, solo riff in a DeLillo novel when he shows his stuff, and here it's within the game of poker -- Keith's blight and flight, an entire universe of cunning and mystery and predatory impulse, offering a sanctuary where all regret and victories are named and contained. Keith knows this, of course, but DeLillo knows it one better, and his explanation has the laconic truth of a country-western song. "He wasn't playing for the money. He was playing for the chips."

Lianne, in the meantime, is looking for God, another route on the same landscape, a place she suspects exists because of its surrounds: "Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas." "Falling Man" ends in a quiet and masterful crescendo, a lamentation for the dead on 9/11 but also for the living, and therefore proof that time outlasts every ending. The novel has the intelligence of DeLillo's "White Noise" and a few of the grace notes of "Underworld," though its haunting sparsity belongs to it alone. And DeLillo has done something wrenching and exquisite that few writers could do: He has evoked a moment of immeasurable dimension in three words. "Bright day gone."

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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