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At Home With War 

9/11 dark comedy breaks new ground

Joyce and Marshall Harriman hate each other. Trouble is, they're married, one year into a particularly nasty divorce. To make matters worse, they still have to live together, with two small children, as they sue each other to keep their cool, but none too spacious, Brooklyn Heights co-op.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Joyce has to cancel her flight to San Francisco and heads instead to her office in the West Village. An hour later, she hears someone say that an airplane has crashed into one of the Twin Towers. She keeps working while fellow office workers head for the roof garden to take a look at the smoking building. Suddenly, screams rend the air and Joyce steps onto the roof where her co-workers are staring, horrified by a second plane's explosion. After awhile, the first tower collapses, smoke and dust pouring into the sky and the streets. At this point, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country takes a sharp turn.

Joyce heard gasps and groans and appeals to God's absent mercy. A woman beside her sobbed without restraint. But Joyce felt something erupt inside her, something warm, very much like, yes it was, a pang of pleasure, so intense it was nearly like the appeasement of hunger ... The deep-bellied roar of the tower's collapse finally reached her and went on for minutes, it seemed, followed by an unnaturally warm gust that pushed back her hair and ruffled her blouse. The building turned into a rising mushroom-shaped column of smoke, dust, and perished life, and she felt a great gladness.

"Joyce, oh my God!" cried a colleague. "I just remembered. Doesn't your husband work there?"

She nodded slowly. His office was on the eighty-sixth floor of the south tower, which had just been removed whole from the face of the earth. She covered the lower part of her face to hide her fierce, protracted struggle against the emergence of a smile.

Unknown to Joyce, however, Marshall was late for work that day and wasn't killed at the World Trade Center. In fact, Marshall has his own turn at morbid glee when he hears that United Flight 93 -- which Joyce was supposed to take that morning -- has crashed into a Pennsylvania field. His gratitude for this unexpected gift of freedom runneth over. Both husband and wife are gravely disappointed later that day.

A few novels, most notably Ian McEwen's Saturday, have dealt with the 9/11 attacks, but none as forthrightly and forcefully as Ken Kalfus' new book. Certainly none have been dark comedies, nor have any engaged with our national post-9/11 psyche as sharply as this one.

Joyce and Marshall carry on with their bitter divorce, as the new "war on terror" becomes an uneasy counterpoint to their own personal wars. In their comically hateful way, they make clear that living in the middle of worldwide upheaval doesn't necessarily break the continuity of our lives, but it can enmesh us in unforeseen ways. As an Afghani doctor who treats Marshall observes, "Now you know what it's like to live in history."

The spiteful spouses engage in psychological warfare as Joyce seduces Marshall's best friend and he ruins her sister's wedding. He taps her phone, she suspects he has sent an envelope containing anthrax to her office, and he studies how to make a suicide bomb. The two kids "play 9/11," holding hands and jumping off porches. Abu Ghraib, the war in Afghanistan, "Mission Accomplished," it's all just background noise and subconscious fodder for our nasty pair, their devastated private life spiraling toward disaster.

Kalfus's style is quick, almost breezy, bolstered by a brutally detached cleverness. He depicts Joyce and Marshall's twisted, comic battles and personalities -- and conveys his own rejection of America's soap-opera-tinged piety about 9/11 -- without resorting to harangues or pretense. You have to love a writer who comes up with a line like "Although she hated him with every cell in her body, she didn't believe he was a bad man, not really."

Critics have seemingly been waiting for an author to write the novel that would put 9/11 "in perspective," wrap it up somehow in a tidy bundle to be stored along with narratives of Vietnam or World War II. Kalfus is saying that probably ain't gonna happen; that there's not one correct way to view 9/11; and that even if there was, we're no doubt too dissociated from each other to share it. But in the meantime, we have this smart, hilarious novel to read.

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