I checked out Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game from the library because I had spent an hour or so checking out “best book lists” in an effort to overcome my recent spate of terrible reads. It showed up on several lists, and without reading a plot summary, I decided I’d give it a try. I think from the title I expected that the book would be about a game show, or maybe the actor – Robert De Niro. Wrong!
The novel centers on the first person protagonist, Bassam, as he tries to escape Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and his best friend, George – who also goes by the name “De Niro” (one part of the title explained). The two begin the novel messing about with a casino – stealing money and what not – and so you might at first expect the titular “game” to be related to gambling. Not so! The game, as it turns out, De Niro’s game in The Deer Hunter: both Bassam and George literally and symbolically play Russian Roulette as the two try to navigate the politics of the Civil War and the psychology of having been raised as “hunters”.
I did enjoy the story, and I appreciated Bassam’s narrative voice – not an entirely reliable narrator, certainly not very sympathetic in his actions, and yet someone, I still cared about him and wanted him to be okay – but what I enjoyed most was the use of extended similes and metaphors. Scenes are described with one rich simile which is then compared to something else, and compared to something else, an on, until you’ve reached the end of a breathtaking sentence that really does wonderful work with the imagination and in conjuring the sensory and emotive registers of the scene (that sounds a bit like an ad for perfume, but I do mean it – the similes are mind-blowing, and not in a Tom Robbins “what does this have to do with anything” kind of way, but in a melding of all kinds of different experiences). The metaphors – hunting, dust, cannibalism, games, smoking, the moon – carry throughout the novel and interweave with one another to a degree where I found it difficult to be sure what one alluded to, or whether the whole point was a collapse of clear meaning. In any case: full points for narrative style.
If nothing else De Niro’s Game breaks the cycle of bad writing and reminds me that a good book can make you forget just about everything (including a heat wave of temperatures in the 40 degree Celcius range, a thesis that refuses to write itself) and if it doesn’t help you forget, it at least puts into perspective so-called “problems”.