Associate Professor Adam Berlin’s post-9/11 novel, The Number of Missing, which will be available November 15 from Spuyten Duyvil press, examines the nature of loss through the events and tragedy of 9/11. The Number of Missing never loses focus or misses the human pulse and course of grieving. Berlin, a faculty member in the English department and a seasoned, award-winning writer, does not use the crutch of sentimentality and romanticism, but is loyal to his characters’ plight in that he follows the onerous process of contending with death, unresolved conflicts, regret, torn friendships and new love severed at its beginnings.
The Number of Missing begins a month after 9/11. David (the narrator) and Mel meet regularly to drink, to give each other comfort and to reminisce about Paul, who died in his office at the World Trade Center. David is particularly tormented because he’d fought with his best friend shortly before the disaster—Paul, recently married to Mel, was pushing David to change his irresponsible life. The novel unfolds as David and Mel try to negotiate, through drinking and reminiscing, the loss of a friend and husband.
“Both of my characters are trying to hold on to their sanity. I wanted to keep this novel raw; I didn’t want any sweetness. I thought a lot about the word ‘entropy,’ how things wind down. I wanted to capture that still, sad, dead feeling that was pervasive throughout the city after the attacks. It circles and circles and circles. I was thinking about post-war novels where damaged characters go on living but not really. It’s the “not really” I tried to get right in my book.”
Berlin had lived downtown during 9/11 and the Twin Towers were actually his destination on his morning runs through the city. He was home when the planes hit and said that their absence was felt deeply for months afterward—the towers were silent, looming fixtures in the backdrop of his changing downtown terrain. When the planes hit, Berlin started to walk instinctually toward the towers to get as close as possible, but then suddenly stopped and, remembering he was supposed to teach that day, took the subway to the college.
“It was ridiculous in some ways because only a few students showed up, but I felt I had to be there for them. If I hadn’t gone to school, I think I would have gotten too close.”
The John Jay students lost in the attacks were present in Berlin’s consciousness as he wrote his novel. In addition, Berlin dedicated the book to his brother’s friend John William Perry who was a police officer and was retiring that day from the NYPD. Before John turned in his badge, he rushed down to the Twin Towers to help out. He did not survive.
Berlin said the first drafts of The Number of Missing exuded more anger; the main character was looking for something to hit. “But,” said Berlin, “there was nothing to hit. You could hate the people who did this to us, but in the end there is nothing to lash out at and, in many ways, that’s what grief is.”
For more about The Number of Missing, click here. Berlin is also the co-editor, along with Jeffrey Heiman, of J Journal: New Writing on Justice, John Jay’s literary journal.