September 11 is a date that will forever live in the memories of those who were alive when the Twin Towers crumbled. The devastation was felt around the world, but it touched New Yorkers in ways that only they can understand, especially if the tragedy affected them directly via the loss of a loved one. That touchy, gloomy terrain of grief, pain, and resentment is where author Adam Berlin sets his latest novel, The Number of Missing. At once an ode to New York City and an exploration of sorrow, the novel reopens old wounds to survey the damage done and remind us of the power of the feelings that came after 9/11.
David lives, runs, works as an artist’s model, and, most of all, drinks a lot in post-9/11 Manhattan. In a few of bars, he drinks alone, with a friend, or with Mel, his best friend’s widow. David and Mel are brought together by the pain of losing husband/best friend Paul. The drinking is accompanied by conversations of what happened and stories about Paul. Unfortunately, David’s memories are made more bitter by the fact that he had a fight with his best friend before the terrorist attacks. The grief makes everyone question the world, each other, and themselves. As Mel falls into the arms of a new man and David falls deeper into alcoholism, Paul’s memory and the injured city around them become insufferable pressures that overpower everything else.
Berlin does a few things right in The Number of Missing. For starters, the simple, straightforward prose allows him to quickly take readers into the core of what David is feeling and makes the descriptive passages of the city stronger and more easily digestible. Also, by having most of the action coming via dialogue, the narrative is open to imagination and invites an examination of what’s being said as much as that which the characters are holding back or implying.
Besides a quick pace and believable dialogue, Berlin manages to place the reader in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The city is devastated, people are confused, and there’s a bizarre mixture of fear, anguish, uncertainty, desperation, and anger in the air, and the author successfully brings that to the page:
Downtown where I lived, close enough to the collapsed buildings to taste the bitter, burnt air against your tongue and gums, the living people all looked a little dead. There were no cars driving the streets except for a pick-up truck or van coming from downtown, ashy debris flying off hoods and fenders when the wind blew, people turning their sad faces to shield their eyes and mouth from the dust. We were breathing bodies. The streets were unnaturally quiet broken by the occasional ambulance siren, pointless noise since there were no survivors.
Despite having a lot going for it, The Number of Missing has a few flaws. The first one is length. The plot is interesting and the characters are well developed, but after the first 150 pages, the drinking, arguing, and the all-encompassing ennui start to become repetitive. The second flaw, which is intrinsically tied to the first one, is the social space the characters occupy. One of the most important things an author should try to achieve is a connection between his characters and the readers, and that’s hard to pull off when the characters are white, gorgeous individuals with no pressing financial problems who can get into bed with anyone they want and eat at expensive restaurants regularly. For all its raw emotion and gritty realism, this narrative comes very close to being just one more story about privileged, attractive, rich New Yorkers.
Ultimately, The Number of Missing is about trauma and loss. It’s a fictional account of how a horrible death can affect people, and one that’s very easy to imagine as true.
The Number of Missing, by Adam Berlin. Spuyten Duyvil. 292 pages. $18.00, paper.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press, 2013). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTML Giant, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, and other print and online venues.