I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
The first thing you’ll notice is the urgency. Our hero’s youthful voice flirting with maturity, ready to move and ready to take you with him, whether you’re ready or not. Even when he’s waiting, you sense the activity, the plans and schemes to move his life along, to leave for pastures greener, or in the meantime, to bear the ten thousand bombs falling all around him.Ten thousand bombs. This is Beirut – 1982. The civil war has been raging in Lebanon since the mid 70s and would continue for many more years. For Bassam and his best friend George, this is the only life they’ve known. In DeNiro’s Game, the first novel by Rawi Hage, that life explodes onto the page, as Bassam dreams of escaping the day-to-day horrors of a city under siege. A city at war with itself.Fuelled by longing, by testosterone, Bassam does whatever desperation demands of him to acquire the money to leave. All the while we sense Beirut’s past weighing heavily on Bassam’s shoulders:”I climbed onto George’s motorbike and sat behind him and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamluks had stolen the villagers’ food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandfather.”Bassam’s childhood friend George eventually joins the militia, plunging head-first into the hell that governs their lives. George lives life one step closer to the extreme, constantly tempting fate. This is where the title comes in: George is nicknamed DeNiro by many of his cohorts, who share his fascination for the Russian Roulette game played out in the film The Deer Hunter, literally a death-defying game which becomes almost a rite of passage for George and others in his group.Meanwhile Bassam deals with life in a broken city. The horrific and the mundane become one:”Ten thousand bombs had split the winds, and my mother was still in the kitchen smoking her long white cigarettes.”And an awareness of mortality mixes with youthful arrogance. Bassam tempts fate in his own way:”Death does not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was flying on the curved road… I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god’s spear, a traveling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth underneath me. I was a king.”Less a political tract than a survival story, DeNiro’s Game illustrates how a war breeds anarchy which then gives way to militia rule. Thuggery. And for two young men living by their wits, it’s eat or be eaten.I left Beirut when I was two years old. The civil war was still a few years off, but the whole region was unstable. And so my parents, with little Andrew in tow, packed up what we could, left behind a lot more, and abandoned the life we knew to begin a completely new one in Canada.Bassam’s neighbourhood – that’s where we had lived. The town in the mountains outside of Beirut where Bassam and George would temporarily escape the city – that’s where my grandfather was from – and was basically our second home. These neighborhoods and towns had existed for me as idyllic pre-war photos that my parents and I would periodically pore over in our comfy Canadian living room. Then on the evening news, a different Beirut – a Beirut of snipers and militias and bombed-out neighborhoods.This novel is the first thing I’ve read that draws it all together and takes it home. It would have been simple for my family to not make the life-changing decision that they made. Then I would have been like Bassam or George, growing up in a perpetual state of civil war surrounded by drug-running and siege-survival. And while my temperament, even as a youth, tended to be gentle and contemplative, I wonder how a brutal youth would have changed my very nature. And on the flipside, how different Bassam and George would have been had they been spared the never-ending rain of ten thousand bombs.