On the third day, God created Red Bull. Thank God He did, because this literary keg stand is making me a little dizzy. Reading a novel in one day is almost like listening to your favourite uncle wax nostalgic about his glory days-comforting and quite engrossing. Reading five novels in five days, however, is like travelling back in time with your uncle to relive each rejection, each second base, each mutton chop.
For this reason, I'm happy to say that we have a winner. Trevor Cole's The Fearsome Particles was relentlessly funny and tragic, but dysfunctional families are tired tropes. It seems that every other new novel features a brooding teenager (obsessed with the Periodic Table, Nietzsche or rye catchers), a self-medicating mother (addicted to OxyContin, the Marlboro Man and appearances) and a lost father (always on the sauce). Similarly, Bill Gaston's Gargoyles is a beautiful assortment of literary tapas, but it won't win. If I remember my algorithms correctly, short stories are to novels at the Governor General Awards what comedy is to drama at the Academy Awards. Gaston's gargoyles are eclectic and rewarding, but they are crippled by their brevity, which some critics might mistake for frivolity.
De Niro's Game, however, has it all wrapped up into one very potent Molotov cocktail: a frightening ghost story about the Beirut civil war, the odyssey of a violently sexual orphan, and ten thousand Parisian lights. At the beginning of the novel, without much warning, Hage pulls the pin from his literary grenade:
"A bomb fell in the next alley. I heard screams; a river of blood must be flowing by now. I waited; the rule was to wait for the second bomb. Bombs landed in twos, like Midwestern American tourists in Paris. The second bomb fell. I walked slowly out of my apartment. I walked down the stairs and through the back alleys, guided by screams and the smell of powder and scattered stones. I found the blood beside a little girl."
I'm often alienated by the scope and gravity of war novels. Bullets don't speak to me. They scare me. But De Niro's Game isn't alienating because it's not really about combat. More than anything, Hage's novel tackles the fragility of friendship and the beauty of adversity overcome.
Bassam, Hage's narrator, wants to get out of Lebanon. Beirut has nothing left to offer him. Bassam dreams about things that are worlds apart: powdered wigs, Playboy bunnies and Roman ruins. But there are things Bassam must do before he can erase himself from his homeland.
George (alias De Niro), Bassam's childhood friend, gets in the way. A casino crook-cum-militiaman, George settles for the stable instability of war-torn Beirut. George deals cocaine. He shoots heroin. He kills women and children. The bonds of friendship, however tenuous they may be, tie Bassam to George in the face of insurmountable obstacles.
De Niro's Game is replete with anachronistic brand references: Drakkar Noir cologne, Kotex pads and Heineken beer. Bassam dreams about virgins and sports cars. In the eye of the Lebanese storm, Bassam finds refuge in innocuous daydreams about the irrelevance of action movies and product placement.
In the third part of the novel, Bassam flees to Paris. A Parisian day dawns in opposition to the oppressive night of Beirut:
"The bathroom had golden faucets; the water ran in abundance. I spread the foam of perfumed soap on my skin, and silky soft shampoo on my curly hair. The maid knocked, giggled, handed me a razor. As I shaved, I let the water run in a vengeful act of waste."
Bassam escapes from Beirut, but Beirut never escapes from Bassam. Bassam begins to feel alone and isolated without the reassurance that bombs will continue to fall around him. Without his family, without George and the war, Bassam loses faith in the existence and tangibility of home.
Hage creates in De Niro's Game a world of hyperbole. Ten thousand kisses ease the pain of ten thousand mourners terrorized by ten thousand bombs. But this isn't a story about Beirut or ten thousand tragedies. This is Bassam's story. At once fearless and fearsome, Bassam travels through life armed with an AK-47, intent on destroying that which stands between him and his dreams. De Niro's Game is epic, tragic, and beautiful in a way that assaults its reader long after Bassam leaves Beirut. Hage's prose shatters into poetic debris.
Tougher than De Niro, harder than Pacino, this novel is a riveting examination of life in a world turned upside down by war. De Niro's Game will and should win the 2006 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.
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On the fourth day, God created Paul Glennon's experimental and quirky novel, The Dodecahedron or A Frame for Frames. But didn't He rest at some point?