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This is only Michael Lavigne’s second novel (“Not Me,” which won a Sami Rohr Choice award, was the first, in 2005), but you can already pick out some signature styles and preoccupations. In both novels, horror and humor are coiled around each other inseparably, like the strands of DNA’s double helix.
Here, for instance, is young Amir on the day of his martyrdom, with the bomb already strapped to his chest, remembering too late that he was supposed to buy the batteries. Reluctantly he strips the batteries from his father’s beloved remote control, cringing at the thought of his father’s rage when he discovers the dead remote. He leaves a note: “Sorry, but your batteries are needed to liberate Palestine. Love, Amir.”
Both novels are heavily steeped in irony, which Lavigne sees as a condition of Israeli existence — not, perhaps, as necessary as oxygen (although who knows?), but equally fundamental. Irony is not in the atmosphere, it is the atmosphere: Israelis must absorb and somehow withstand being compared to Hitler, day and night without respite. They must tolerate the worldwide tendency to see the terrorists as the victims in the endless struggle between Israel and 300 million Arabs.
And the ultimate irony is that despite having struggled and fought to build a Jewish safe haven, safety is further away than ever before. Even in Russia under the Communists, they didn’t try to blow you up at bus stops.
Yeah, Jews and irony: like a horse and carriage.
Incapable of stepping back into his life as if nothing had happened, Roman wanders around southern Israel and the West Bank, trying to make sense of violence. During those unsupervised hours, Anyusha is being recruited by a group of Jewish religious extremists who want to blow up a mosque.
Meanwhile, the soul of Amir, the headless suicide bomber, is not allowed into heaven. Weeks after his suicide, Amir is still unsure why he is not in “Paradise with my dark-eyed maidens and rivers of wine,” and vaguely concludes that “Allah had other plans” for him. He wishes he could remember what the Quran had to say on this point, but since he never did get around to reading the holy book, he cannot remember anything helpful.
Roman drives into the West Bank and leaves his car at Amir’s father’s garage, pretending to want a tune-up, then wanders into the desert just outside town and becomes hopelessly lost. Many hours later, Amir’s father finds him, dehydrated and incoherent, and decides to bring him home until he’s well enough to travel. At some point, Roman realizes he is sleeping in Amir’s bed.
It’s probably inevitable that a novel about people searching for answers to unanswerable questions will not have a clean, satisfying ending. Each of the three learns something important, though, allowing them to resume their unique journey, wherever it takes them.
As in life, that’s all we can ask.
Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer living in Cape Cod, writes for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and New York Observer.