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December 15, 2013

The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin

Review by Alison Ruth

Balancing on the water-tension stillness between guilt and grief is a man who punches walls just to watch his blood as it falls, and the light-eyed widow with whom he drinks until time skips. Adam Berlin’s The Number of Missing is a testament to how words sharpen memory even when a soul has been vaporized. The World Trade Center terror has tolled for David’s best friend and Mel’s husband. His death was on the 103rd floor.
There comes a point when you can’t get out of the way, when mathematical equations that calculate speed and distance make it physically impossible to escape, when the line is fixed, the course inevitable, and only the hand of God can snatch the moment, make it not happen.
We do not know when or how our fall will come, and our conscious mind refuses to dwell on it. But after David and Mel endure a wartime strike that kills a man they love, they dread this impending instant of understanding. Their allegiance has been pledged to him and those who died with him. Though their consciousness can still be seduced by fine liquor, fine bodies, as they circle their exploded downtown perimeter in pursuit of oblivion, their consciousness remains in a state of flux. Is it possible to stand still enough to not disturb the universe?
David’s bitter recollection of his best friend mixes with the sweetness of a widow’s sorrow. Bourbon seeks its own equilibrium during their barside conversations, icy as Hemingway’s. Falling is perpetual; the tragedy is that none of the characters can run fast enough, damn each other hard enough, nor drink enough, to will their broken-glass destinies away. “I picture the fall and it’s not unlike the fall of all those bodies that day. It starts horribly, those first moments through air unattached to anything, but then the speed must slow, not the real speed but the feeling of speed, seconds and seconds of falling and not hitting anything, and the hands and feet, the arms and legs, even the heart must move from clenched fear to something else, to letting go, to acceptance.”
Alcohol, lighter than water, allows those left alive to float upon their subconscious. David lingers to catch Mel as she falls further into her own numbing Old Fashioned dream. But David has been too long powerless; a perfect artists’ model, he has stood too long still. “. . . I lie down on this debris, lie down on this grave, lie and watch, hidden behind a steel beam, maybe part of the steel I watched that morning and thought it was melting, and I watch them dig in the light.” 
It is in these passages the reader will linger to recall her own regret, that time is both too short and too long, anywhere near Ground Zero, anywhere near a cemetery.

About the author:

Alison Ruth was a feature writer for the popular music magazines Creem, Rock, Rock Fever, and Wavelength. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and have been published in Kestrel, J Journal, Southern Indiana Review, G.W. Review, and Tulane Literary Magazine. Her first novel, Near-Mint Cinderella, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books in 2014.