De Niro's Game

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The title of this novel, De Niro’s Game, refers not only to the character of George, who is nicknamed De Niro after the American actor, but also to the suicidal Russian roulette that Robert De Niro’s character is forced to play in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film about the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter. The title does not, however, simply refer to the game of Russian Roulette that will finish the story of George and Bassam. It also describes the situation of young men in a world in which survival seems to be increasingly an inexplicable matter of chance and in which the value of life is treated with a careless disregard. Additionally, it is a world in which violence is perceived as virtually the only effective solution to any problem, and although on one level the reckless young men are convinced of their invincibility, their irresponsible conductin a world without hope or optionstakes on a suicidal ideation.

The narrative explores the friendship of two Lebanese young men within this context. Bassam and George come of age in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The militias that have taken over the city are little more than powerful criminal gangs; the city, besieged by bombs and bullets, has become not only a war zone but also an amoral, lawless space that easily accommodates theft and violence. As a result, the young men growing up in this place and time find they are becoming socialized into criminality.

Bassam is drawn into this world through the offices of his friend George, who invites him to steal a bit of cash from the casino run by the powerful Christian militia that governs their section of town. George pulls Bassam in deeper by tricking him into a job smuggling liquor and drugs. While Bassam is in a state of panic and determined to escape Beirut and the underworld in which he has become enmeshed, his friend George feels neither helpless nor powerless. He rises in the ruthless world of the militia but, at the same time, loses his moral compass, callously betraying a friend and eventually taking part in the Phalangist massacre of Palestinian women and children at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. George’s corruption is also indicated by his strange sexual involvement with a wealthy young couple, Laurent and Nicole Aoudeh; he ends by addicting Nicole to drugs and is responsible for the murder of her husband.

Unlike George, Bassam is not drawn to the world of power and criminality. Having lost both his father and more recently his mother when a bomb hits their apartment, he is looking to get out. However, although Bassam’s path gradually diverges significantly from George’s, there is also considerable intermingling, almost twinning, of the two. Bassam has a brief love affair with George’s attractive aunt, Nabila; in turn, George steals Bassam’s girlfriend, Rana. More and more, Bassam appears to be not George’s friend but his rival and then his dupe. For instance, Bassam is stuck taking the blame for George’s crimes, such as the murder of Laurent, and is as a result cruelly tortured by a thuggish soldier named Rambo. Bassam’s position becomes even more untenable after he vengefully murders his torturer and after he passes information from his communist uncle to a contact in Beirut. This favor leads to the death of Al-Rayess, the highest commander of the Christian Lebanese forces.

The web of violence and intrigue into which Bassam has been drawn is troubling, but even more disturbing is Bassam’s struggle with the disintegration of his personality. This breakdown is indicated by the narrative style, which on the one hand is edgy and hard-boiled and on the other hand is poetic and strangely healing, as if the madness into which he is descending contains also the seeds of his recovery. While beset with a flow of dreams and fantasies that take him both out of himself and deeper into himself, Bassam’s harsh side finds validation in the famous Albert Camus novel L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1943). When Bassam escapes to Paris after the death of George, the concierge at his hotel gives him the Camus novel, which offers Bassam an existential context in which to understand why he has adopted an empty, alienated perspective that not only makes it difficult for him to assign value but affords him little or no sense of personal agency.

It is in this mood that...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

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The Village Voice 52, no. 33 (August 15, 2007): 54.

The Washington Post, June 24, 2008, p. C8.