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When Benjamin Sachs is blown to bits by the bomb he has been building, the FBI tracks down Peter Aaron, his best friend and fellow novelist. It seems that the only reason they are interested in Peter is that his initials and phone number was found on a piece of paper in the dead man's pocket. At this point, the FBI agents don't yet know who the dead man is. Peter is non-committal when questioned; he doesn't really want the FBI to know that he is writing his own story about Benjamin Sachs. He even keeps the FBI visit a secret from his wife, Iris, because he doesn't want his wife to worry about the consequences of her husband being mixed up in the Sachs case.
Peter remembers that Ben shared with him a terrible secret the last time he saw Ben alive; with the confession, Ben also made Peter promise not to share his secret with anyone. Peter knows that when his story is eventually read, the whole world will know about this secret; until then, he comforts himself that he has kept his promise.
Peter and Ben first meet at a reading of their work at a Greenwich Village bar fifteen years ago. However, due to inclement weather, both novelists are the only two authors who turn up for the reading. They buy each other drinks and swap writing stories all evening. Peter finds Ben a gifted, sometimes controversial writer who is equal parts egalitarian, generous, non-judgmental, and intellectually curious. He is also a study in contrasts, as self-confident
as he is self-effacing. Ben served time in prison for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. While in prison, he wrote a novel named The New Colossus. Deeply influenced by his Jewish and Catholic background, Ben is not so much a religious purist as much as a man deeply conscientious and idealistic. Both men keep up their acquaintance by seeing each other often in New York City. Peter describes Ben's wife, Fanny, as a direct contrast to her husband. She is discreet, exotic, and fascinating, as reserved as Ben is intuitively spontaneous.
Peter goes on to tell us that Ben eventually comes to eschew fiction writing, turning his attention to writing on such varied topics such as politics, history, popular culture, and food. In reminiscing about relationships, Peter relates how unhappy his first marriage to Delia Bond was. Despite enduring financial hardship during their marriage, Peter tells us that the death blow only came when he read Delia's diary entries: in it, Delia stresses that she never loved Peter and that she never will. Peter moves out the next day. Fanny (Ben's wife) helps Peter find a sublet in Manhattan; in due time, Peter has a sexually exciting relationship with a woman named Maria Turner, an exhibitionist who enjoys displaying her body in titillating poses for men. Maria is a close friend of a prostitute named Lillian. We later find out that Lillian is the estranged wife of a man named Reed diMaggio, who figures prominently in later events in Ben's life.
Delia eventually tries to reconcile with Peter. Surprisingly, Fanny cautions Peter against the idea. She propositions Peter herself, telling Peter that Ben has his own lovers and that she is free to do so herself. They have a tumultuous affair until Peter gives Fanny an ultimatum: either marry him or quit their affair. Peter tells her that he isn't a
fan of duplicity, but Fanny refuses to leave Ben. They eventually break off their relationship; meanwhile, Ben tells Peter that his wife has confessed everything and that he doesn't hold anything against Peter. Peter is flabbergasted at his friend's nonchalance. He is even more shocked when Ben tells him that he (Ben) is as much a participant in Fanny's sexual fantasies as she is. Both of them enjoy spurious, lurid fantasy stories about the other's sexual escapades.
Ben confesses that Fanny's jealousy fuels her twisted desire to connect her husband with varied lovers; it's the only way she feels that she can reconcile her infertility with what she considers her flawed womanhood, her inability to be able to have children with Ben. Ben doesn't expect Peter to understand; he simply tells Peter that they have been married too long and experienced too much together to desert each other at this point. Peter is left confused and broken-hearted: he feels that he has been given two different stories and doesn't want to have to choose sides. Subsequently, he indulges in mindless affairs to assuage his grief and pain. Eventually, through Maria, he meets Iris, his future wife. When Peter and Iris get married, Ben is Peter's best man at the wedding.
Peter tells us that no long after this, Ben's life starts falling apart, both professionally and personally. Having always been an idealist, Ben finds it hard to reconcile his deep idealism with the apathy of his fellow citizens. One night, while watching the fireworks in celebration of the Statue of Liberty's 100th year, he almost loses his life. Ben's accidental fall from a Brooklyn apartment building rooftop foreshadows his own death four years later. After this near shave with death, Ben decides that he wants to live his life as a man of action rather than as a writer. He becomes the 'Phantom Of Liberty,' fashioning elaborate home-made bombs and equally elaborate alibis in order to blow up replicas of the Statue of Liberty in small towns across America. No one knows who this Phantom is, but law enforcement is on high alert across the country.
In the end, Ben crosses paths with one Reed Dimaggio, a member of the radical environmental group 'Children of The Planet.' Ben tells Peter of his admiration for Reed, who is courageous enough to translate his own anarchist beliefs into solid action. In addition, despite pursuing different paths during the Vietnam War ( Reed fought, but Ben didn't), both eventually come to the same conclusions about their values. In the novel, 'The Children Of The Planet' is an environmental terrorist group committed to shutting down operations at nuclear power plants, logging companies,
and other 'despoilers of the earth' through violent action.
When Ben is lost in the woods in Vermont one day, he is given a ride by a young man named Dwight. Neither realize how dangerous their chance encounter is about to get: while taking what Dwight thinks is a shortcut back to Ben's house, they come across Reed diMaggio, who is leaning against his white Toyota and smoking a cigarette. Thinking that
Reed's car might have broken down, Dwight asks Reed if he is in need of any help. In response, Reed reaches for his gun and shoots Dwight. Enraged by the senseless and callous murder of the young man, Ben takes up Dwight's metal bat and beats Reed to death. After killing Reed, he looks in the dead man's car trunk. In it, he finds, among other things, Reed's passport and what he thinks is almost $165, 000. He decides that he will give the money to Lillian, Reed's estranged wife, in order to atone for the killing of her husband. Ben then leaves the scene of the crime; meanwhile, no one knows who Reed's killer is.
The story ends with Peter confessing to the FBI agents that he has delineated an expose about seemingly unconnected national events in his new book. He has decided to name his book Leviathan, after Ben's unfinished novel. This book reveals the terrible secrets Ben has shared with Peter. Symbolic of his namesake in the Bible (Aaron acted as Moses' spokesman before Pharoah in Egypt after Moses pleaded with God that his eloquence alone would not be sufficient to convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go), Peter Aaron now becomes the voice of the deceased Ben Sachs.
Meanwhile, Harris, one of the agents, eventually figures out that Benjamin Sachs is the Phantom of Liberty, Reed diMaggio's killer, and the man who blew himself up with his own home-made bomb in Wisconsin.
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