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The Man Who Knew Too Little
In the days after 9/11, an amnesiac policeman races across the country to find a missing woman.

Reviewed by John McNally
Sunday, September 10, 2006

THE ZERO

A Novel

By Jess Walter

Regan. 326 pp. $25.95

Jess Walter, whose new dark (and darkly comic) thriller opens in New York a few days following Sept. 11, 2001, does the smartest thing he could have done: He doesn't mention 9/11 by name, nor does he mention the World Trade Center or any other important person, place or thing having to do with that day. And yet we know exactly who's who and what's what. Even the book's title, The Zero , is a reference to Ground Zero, but by stripping away a single word, he makes the place both fresh and nightmarish all over again. Walter builds the hellish aftermath from scratch, transforming that day -- and the months that follow -- into a noir page-turner with powerful social commentary about the marketing of a tragedy and the endless ways in which some citizens have profited by it.

When writing about the "Zero" itself, Walter doesn't spare us details that have the ring of truth:

"Everyone knew that it stunk especially bad here, and everyone knew what the smell had to be, but no one could find the exact source. An elevator bank? A stairwell? A fire rig? A few years ago, when he was still married, Remy had kicked his kid's jack-o'-lantern underneath his porch and this was how it smelled in spring."

The Zero is the story of policeman Brian Remy, whose life begins slipping out of control after the towers come down. During bouts of mysterious memory loss, Remy has been enlisted by a secret organization involved in tracking down a woman named March Selios, who worked in one of the towers but may have survived. What ensues is a cross-country hunt for clues and Remy's growing suspicion that he is committing unspeakable acts during his blackouts. Why is he searching for March? Like a character out of a Kafka novel, Remy isn't sure what the purpose of his pursuit is, and yet he pursues.

A large cast of minor characters makes The Zero particularly rich: Paul Guterak, Remy's old partner, who is obsessed with his newfound post-9/11 fame and can't stop talking about it; Edgar, Remy's teenage son, who enjoys the attention he receives when he tells his classmates that his father perished in one of the buildings; Markham, Remy's partner in the covert operation, who waxes philosophic on the attractiveness of deer ("I'm not saying I'd necessarily want to have sex with a deer").

Walter's deadpan dialogue rivals that in scenes from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son :

"Guterak looked over. 'Hey, you got your hair cut.'

" 'Yeah.' Remy put the cap back on.

" 'What made you do that?'

" 'I shot myself in the head last night.'

" 'Well.' Paul drove quietly for a moment, staring straight ahead. 'It looks good.' "

Walter nails our often surreal post-9/11 world, where exploitation of the tragedy has become commonplace. Remy spots "rows of news trucks, two dozen of them queued up for slow troll, grief fishing, block after block -- Action and Eyewitness and First At, dishes scooped to the sky like palms at a mass." His old partner signs a deal to promote First Responder cereal.

The novel falters, however, when Walter tries to sustain the credibility of Remy's frequent memory loss for 300 pages. Since we are confined to Remy's perspective, the reader experiences these lapses along with Remy. His disorientation becomes our disorientation, and his lapses raise a host of critical questions: Why is Remy remembering certain things but not others? Why does he remember "not remembering"?

The book's individual scenes are aesthetically appealing, but the reader can't get a grip on the plot's larger issues (namely, what is Remy's role in this secret organization; why does he continue doing what he's doing?). It becomes increasingly hard to care for a narrator who is unsure of his own motives and whose goals remain murky even to himself.

Despite this weakness, I was still won over. Walter is an immensely talented writer. In April, his Citizen Vince won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel, and now he's written a new thriller not only with a conscience but also full of dead-on insights into our culture and its parasitic response to a national tragedy. ยท

John McNally, author of "America's Report Card," teaches at Wake Forest University.

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