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Jewcy Review: Assaf Gavron’s “Almost Dead”

That great Jewish scribe David Mamet wrote that "a dramatic experience concerned with the mundane may inform but it cannot release; and one concerned essentially with the aesthetic politics of its creators may divert or anger, but it cannot enlighten."  Almost Dead (Harper Collins), a new novel by Israeli author and translator Assaf Gavron, is so tethered to insipid characters and structural gimmicks that despite many diversions, it lacks the epiphanies and veracity that herald great fiction. We open on Eitan "Croc" Einoch riding a Tel Aviv bus to work in the midst of the Second Intifada, a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian violence early in the twenty-first century.  Fellow passengers murmur about a man aboard who they suspect is a suicide bomber.  A rider named Giora Guetta asks that should anything happen, Croc to give a message to Shuli, Guetta’s girlfriend in Jerusalem.  Einoch is skeptical, dismissing Giora’s request before quickly exiting.  Moments later Croc hears an explosion: the would-be terrorist has blown the bus to shreds, killing Guetta and nine others.  Croc sets out to track down Shuli and decipher what Guetta’s message would have been.  Over the next week, Einoch survives two more terrorist attacks, becoming a reluctant media sensation, national icon of endurance, and planned target of an impending fourth assault. Were Gavron content to let Croc play amateur detective (as he does briefly in the book’s final fifty pages), the character might find suspense, purpose, and focus.  Instead, Gavron bogs our hero down with superfluous digressions and contrivances, while doing everything in his power to make Croc dislikable.  Eitan is a character with virtually no defined motives, ambitions, or interests.  Without the extraordinary circumstances that find him, he’s but a whiny tech support guy who wants nothing more than for his shrill girlfriend to shut up so that he can enjoy his cheeseburger.  After a nagging mother’s heart attack cancels their not-at-all-contrived wedding date of September 11th, 2001, Croc’s romance with his gal Duchi has become void of affection and a chore to read.  These are petulant children equally at fault for their failed relationship, yet Gavron curiously places far more blame and misfortune upon the lady.  In fact, each woman in the book falls into the troubling categories of sister, mother, henpecking loudmouth, or vixen whose sexiness is directly tied to her silence.  Croc seems oafish and misogynistic by design, as if Gavron relishes the irony of an unimpressive goon made into a beloved celebrity by political frenzy, more boring sod than sounding board.  But Croc’s mundane apathy towards his own adventure is grating, not unique: strange, but never compelling.  While a protagonist need not be affable, they do need to carry a story, and Croc lacks the vinegar and vivid delusion of great jerk narrators like Humbert Humbert, Holden Caulfield, Maria Wyeth, and Mickey Sabbath. Improvement arrives in Fahmi Sabih, a Palestinian suicide bomber who shares the novel’s first-person narrative with Croc via alternating chapters.  Fahmi tells his half of the story through winding internal monologues while comatose in a Tel Aviv hospital, drifting in and out of lucidity.  Despite interruptions from his smitten nurse Svetlana in a subplot that goes nowhere, Fahmi’s witty narration is restrained, murky, and all the more taut for it.  Each of his chapters concludes with a line that leaves us wanting more of him, and disappointed to return to Croc’s dull solipsism.  Fahmi’s fragmented back story speaks to an upbringing hardened by the refugee experience: he shares none of Croc’s tiresome self-pity, materialism, or histrionics.  Credit Gavron for doing his homework: these moments are rich with Palestinian history and sense of place, illuminating a culture and region of which most Westerners are ignorant.  Sabih juggles conflicting loyalties to his terrorist brother Bihahl, a deceased grandfather whom he considers his mentor in the pursuit of freedom, and his fretful, pacifist father.  Fahmi’s contradictions are his strength as a character: he is an ethical, reluctant killer enthused equally by science and faith, sex and purity, family and the unknown.  In the book’s best passage, Fahmi sets out for the wild blue yonder of the Israeli border town Kafr Qasim with nothing but the clothes on his back and the companionship of a loyal donkey named Dayek.  Not since Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar have I been so moved by the rapport between human and mule.  Almost Dead has been optioned for a movie adaptation by the makers of Run Lola Run and Good Bye Lenin!, and Fahmi is a kindred spirit of those films’ young, impassioned idealists. Hopefully when filmed the novel’s often clumsy prose can be retooled.  Lines like "New forces were taking control of my life and I couldn’t, or perhaps didn’t want to, avoid them", or "Duchi disengaged herself from the embrace", and "Not once since September 11th had we talked about our wedding or our relationship" come with cringe-inducing frequency.  To say that no one talks like this would be unfair.  Melodramatic people who watch bad television talk like this.  So do the "misunderstood rebel" characters in plays written by surly teenagers.  On every page, Gavron and his translator James Lever show rather than tell.  I wondered if this awkwardness was the result of Israeli nuance and cadence being lost in translation.  Yet Gavron claims to have been heavily involved in the process, and has been quoted as saying he thinks this newly edited-for-English version an improvement over the original.  With Almost Dead, the author has forged admirable research and at least one finely tuned character.  It’s unfortunate then the book conclude on a note of unearned pessimism that reads as little more than a puddle of crocodile tears.  In discussing the art of writing clearly without bludgeoning a reader with explicitness, Kurt Vonnegut said that "fiction is a game for two": Gavron here seems too content to play solitaire.

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