I lived in Jerusalem during a horrific spate of bus bombings in the mid-'90s, regularly riding the now infamous bus number 18 from my internship downtown to my girlfriend's apartment. Bus number 18 was blown up during consecutive Sunday morning rush hours by Palestinian suicide bombers while I was safe in bed. Nonetheless, I remember the euphoric rush calling home after the second bombing to assure my loved ones, yet again, I was alive, even before CNN's cameras started rolling.
"I'm still alive." Those words crystallize the dominant sentiment behind novelist Assaf Gavron's brilliant new novel Almost Dead, a dual-track narrative detailing the lives of a young upwardly mobile Tel Aviv techie and a conflicted Palestinian bomb-maker. While marketed as a black comedy, Almost Dead is far more - it is a deeply human story that deals evenhandedly with both sides of the conflict without ever falling prey to politically correct platitudes or easy stereotypes.
Gavron follows an Israeli, nicknamed "Croc," as he survives not only a suicide bombing on the mini bus he takes to work, but also two additional attacks in the same week. His unlikely survival turns Croc into a national folk hero who represents every Jew in an Israel, where "every birthday you celebrate is an achievement."
But Croc is more than a symbol, and his psychological descent is detailed with mordant humour and touching grace as he seeks answers regarding the identity of a young man he had met on the bus just prior to the explosion. In an attempt to assuage his survivor's guilt, Croc's quest leads him directly to the deceased's former girlfriend, and into a second and third attack and deeper feelings of guilt. As Croc tries to grasp the nature of mortality and the randomness of life, he returns again and again to the idea that "God meant to select my button. There was some mistake there."
If Croc is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from surviving three terror attacks, it is clear that the Palestinians of a West Bank rife with checkpoints, Israeli patrols and random midnight searches suffer from a collective sense of PTSD. Fahmi, a young Palestinian, is convinced by his radicalized brother to follow in their freedom-fighting grandfather's footsteps, despite his own father's disapproval, as well as follow his conscience and carry out terror attacks against Israelis.
But Fahmi is a reluctant terrorist who would rather meet his girlfriend in their illicit secret place than shoot at Israelis on the road to Jerusalem. The heavy hand of history and the burden of his past win out. However, Fahmi is not a monster, and that can be attributed in large part to his internal monologue, in which the reader is given a front row seat into the mind of a terrorist even as he lies comatose in an Israeli hospital. He is conflicted, complex and never predictable, and a touching, unlikely bond is formed with an Israeli-Russian nurse as Fahmi drifts "almost dead" between the two polarities of his comatose state.
Even though Croc's survival has led cynical gamblers to create "attack pools" based on his movements, Croc knows that, despite looking death square in the eye and surviving, "death's interest had been aroused and it was looking for me and that it would eventually, inevitably, find me."
It is not long before Fahmi's brother determines "Croc has to die" and dispatches Fahmi on a mission to kill an Israeli symbol of survival. Gavron never misses the mark, expertly ratcheting up the tension as the final attack approaches and the two unlikely comrades become something close to friends. Almost Dead is an ambitious novel that succeeds in large part because of its brutal honesty and fearlessness, painting a vivid picture of the most insoluble conflict of our time with a master's hand.
Jonathan Papernick is the author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and new collection of short stories There Is No Other.