Trigger happy

James Sallis is the author, most recently, of "Salt River."

Flat affect. The face evidences little of worlds without or within, reflects nothing of the crushing weights thrust upon it externally, nothing of the maelstrom of thought and emotion swirling beneath. It is what one sees in the deeply troubled, in the disconnected and institutionalized, in the psychopath -- and in those who have endured the mass uprootings and siege wars that seem the very imprint of human history.

Among the many things that fiction can be, it is a corrective to history, turning away from the clash of ignorant armies, from all those grand ideas that make us so unhappy, to the realities of ordinary people carrying on lives as best they can beneath the many shadows cast over them. Fiction reminds us that history is every bit as much a lie as are novels and short stories. Fiction helps us remember that it is not the great events or ideas that matter, but those faces, those lives.

In both its story line and its language -- at its very heart -- "De Niro's Game" bears the flat affect of the broken and desolate. This first novel by Lebanon-born Rawi Hage tracks a friendship forged in the fires of Lebanon's 15-year-long civil war. Bassam sinks into crime, though always as a means simply to survive, "to reach other shores and leave this place." George takes a separate route, that of the military, steadily consolidating power as he destroys all that might have been good within him.

Quite a lot happens in what is, after all, a slim novel: gang wars, petty crimes, murder, the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Israeli-supported right-wing Lebanese militias at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla -- sudden turns and surfacing of events that catch up in their coils the disorder and abruptions of Bassam's world. Similarly the language, restless, enervated, slides from blunt and colorless to the cadenced, figuring that world's endless cycle of revolution and despair: "Ten thousand bombs had split the winds, and my mother was still in the kitchen smoking her long, white cigarettes. . . . Ten thousand bombs had fallen and I was waiting for death to come and scoop its daily share from a bowl of limbs and blood."

At one point, Bassam begins reading Camus' "The Stranger," and he shares much with the character Meursault: his inability to summon emotion at his mother's funeral, the lack of any connection other than carnal with his girlfriend, a world that has not so much lost meaning as had its essential meaninglessness underscored by events. Two-thirds through this remarkable novel, fleeing from the military, Bassam is picked up by George. "Why do you drive in this direction?" Bassam asks. "The torture chambers are on the other side." "No, Bassam," George responds, "the torture chambers are inside us." As are they always.

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