It's become something of a literary sport, trying to capture 9/11 in a novel. Over the last six years, writers great and small have hurled their harpoons at that whale of a subject, with results ranging from interesting to absurd. No one has come as close to piercing its heart as Don DeLillo with Falling Man, his best book since 1997's Underworld, and maybe his warmest ever.
Fear not, fans: It's still mighty wintry. Keith Neudecker, a 39-year-old Manhattan lawyer, escapes the burning towers and reflexively heads back to the apartment he once shared with his estranged wife, Lianne, and their son, Justin. Keith does not explain his return to the ''extended grimness called their marriage,'' and Lianne does not demand explanation. They are, after all, DeLillo characters, and speak in shorthand when they speak at all: ''They talked about events. They talked about what everyone was talking about.'' Keith's reentry is just part of the vertiginous unreality of the weeks after the attacks, which DeLillo's cool prose both embodies and describes.
The novel unfolds in oblique episodes that show this family erratically processing the tragedy. Lianne's imperious art-historian mother, Nina, announces: ''I want to sit in my armchair and read my Europeans.'' Then Nina begins a terminal argument with her lover, a leftist prone to comments like ''We're all sick of America and Americans.'' Lianne physically assaults a downstairs neighbor who keeps playing Middle Eastern music. Justin and his friends develop a game involving a shady character named Bill Lawton whom all the adults seem to be talking about. And Keith, restless by nature, settles into the rhythms of family life, walking Justin to school and tossing around a baseball. ''This is where he wanted to be, outside the tide of voices and faces, God and country, sitting alone in still rooms, with those nearby who mattered.''
On this feel-good note, a lesser novelist would end a 9/11 novel. But DeLillo's characters continue to drift for years, their feelings and alliances unpredictably shifting as the catastrophe worms its way through their psyches. In several interludes, DeLillo enters the world of Hammad, a pudgy Islamic terrorist who admires both the ''genius'' of Mohamed Atta and the checkout girls at a Florida supermarket. Compared with the Neudeckers, Hammad remains a shallow and artificial creation until his story intersects with Keith's in the shattering conclusion.
So what does DeLillo have to tell us about 9/11? Nothing. And everything. Early in the novel, Lianne studies two haunting still lifes on her mother'swall and resists the impulse to overinterpret: ''Let the latent meanings turn and bend in the wind, free from authoritative comment.'' Amen. A