When Part Three Goes Bad

Were you one of the many folks who loved the National Book Award-winner, Three Junes?  Three Junes Sure, I read that one, too. It had some great scenes. I remember that the first June was a good story and a nice set-up. And the second June was the heart of the novel, and the part everyone loved, and you cried at the end of it. And then there was the third June. I would ask one person after another, “What was the point of that third June?” Maybe I just asked all the wrong people. I sure didn’t get it. You could sum it up as: leftover, uninteresting secondary characters almost connect and don’t. That’s about it. Sure, it was clever that they almost figured out who each other were but didn’t quite – but who cared? The story of the second June was over, we’d wept, and there was nothing more worth saying. Why did Julia Glass include that third section?

That’s how I feel about Part Three of Rawi Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game, which this year won the biggest prize you can win in the literary world, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for $156,000.  De Niro’s Game The book comes out in paperback next week, and I was so blown away by Parts One and Two, so dazzled by the language and grabbed by the images and impressed by the concision and grace of the writing that I’d read some parts over repeatedly. I was traumatized by the culmination of Part Two. The slaughter of the Palestinians in the airport refugee camps was almost unbearable. I had no idea where Part Three could go from there. I suspect neither did the author.

The Part Three that follows – taking the young narrator, Bassam, out of Beirut and putting him in Paris – contains the only overindulgent poetic nonsense in the entire book, long, run-on artiness of the worst kind. The plot stops to make room for dreamy fantasies. The colorful cast shrinks to one, the author, who indulges in pages and pages of stream-of-consciousness posing. How disappointing! It was like Rawi Hage’s younger brother wrote Part Three.

Rawi Hage  Finally, at the end of it, the author includes the scene that should have concluded Part Two, which you don’t realize has been held back until now to conclude Part Three. Everything in between – the whole long pointless Paris sequence with Bassam stalking George’s sister, who may or may not like older men to beat her – is wasted energy, because we haven’t grown to care about these new characters.

We care about Bassam’s best friend, George, even though he’s changed into a murdering militia man. At the end of the book the author tries to tell us that George had become a Mossad double agent – oh, please. Way too little, way too late. We do finally learn the hideous meaning behind the book’s title, but the scene that bears it out is underwhelming and strangely without emotional effect.

So, should a book club read De Niro’s Game? The first two parts of the novel, the first 180 pages, are so good they alone almost warrant discussion. It’s a searing portrait of Beirut as hell with bullets whizzing and bombs exploding and motorcycles roaring, written by a guy who survived nine years of the Lebanese civil war. It’s unforgettable. The authenticity of the Beirut portions of the novel is so intense it makes other books look like they’re standing still. Then the action moves to Paris. Maybe some readers won’t hate Part Three as much as I did. Maybe they won’t mind the narrator turning into an asshole, stalking and mugging other characters. In spite of Part Three, I would still recommend the novel to anyone interested in Beirut. But I won’t be using it for my club, and that’s surprising, because I was absolutely certain I would.

Two-thirds brilliant is very attractive in a novel, and more than most books have to offer. But for a book to be satisfying, the threads need to come together in some kind of significant way. If you bother to read a book, when you finish it you deserve to be satisfied.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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