- Survivor’s Guilt
Adam Berlin’s novel The Number of Missing is an attempt to capture the mood of New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the struggle to get back to something like normal while surrounded by remnants of the attacks: the absence of the towers, the posters bearing faces of missing victims, the fighter jets roaring overhead as periodic reminders of the external threat. This is a book not about the people killed but about the survivors who cannot cope with the fact of their survival, and who find themselves living in a haze of grief and guilt and enough alcohol to sedate an entire fraternity.
The narrator is David, a failed actor who spends nights binge-drinking in search of “time skips.” His best friend, Paul, worked at the World Trade Center, his body buried somewhere in the rubble, and David now feels a paternalistic need to “save” Paul’s widow. Berlin places David in no position to save anyone, but allows him to feel he owes a debt to Paul; they hadn’t spoken since an argument six months prior to the attack, so he died before they could reconcile. David describes him with the sort of reverence one might reserve for a great lost love, and he plainly views Mel as a rival for his affections—late in the book, Mel asks, “Would you prefer I never talk about Paul to anybody but you?” and he responds, “Maybe.” He and Mel spend the majority of the book drinking heavily and discussing things like how they loved Paul, how the world is different now, and how they don’t know how to carry on in this different world without Paul.
This book is in part a homage to Hemingway, with its focus on broken people failing to cope with a post-war life (there are even flashback scenes of bullfights, the running of the bulls, and drinking sangria in Pamplona), but also in the prose itself. The dialogue is highly stylized, and there’s a sort of macho posturing to the narration. We’re reminded in refrain, for example, that “my hands are fists.” David’s simmering rage causes him to challenge a group of twenty firefighters to a bar fight, and the firefighters back down. Despite the fact that he’s utterly broken and a severe alcoholic, he has no problem picking women up every night. He and Paul seal their “carnal bond” by buying prostitutes in Tijuana. David un-ironically writes things like “After I fucked, after I came, I always felt I could see through the world. My sperm depleted, my vision improved and I felt calmly powerful.” The source of the rift between the two men is that Paul once called David “a little man,” which was a harsh enough insult to break their ostensibly profound bond.
Perhaps most obviously reminiscent of Hemingway, there’s the drinking. While the constant drinking is part of the point—they’re staying drunk to avoid reality—it can become monotonous. The novel offers little variety in pacing, tone, or even plot. There is a conversation over bourbon with Mel at an uptown bar, then there is a conversation over bourbon at a midtown restaurant, then there is a conversation over bourbon at a different uptown bar, and sometimes these conversations are spent remembering other similar conversations that were conducted at other bars or at diners. These scenes are best when a third party intrudes on David and Mel’s mourning and they’re forced to break out of their myopic response to the attacks. The action becomes triangulated instead of linear; the characters aren’t allowed to conduct one-way dialogues anymore, they say surprising things, and everything becomes more nuanced and complex. Too often, that third party doesn’t arrive, and while David’s self-pitying wallowing is understandable and believable, it also becomes unpleasant over the course of a novel: he never acknowledges that other people have suffered far more from these attacks, that there is a greater world...