By Jonathan Safran Foer, read by Jeff Woodman, Barbara Caruso, and Richard Ferrone – Many people are already familiar with this 2005 book, because of its popularity (despite mixed reviews) and the Tom Hanks movie made from it, and know the basic plot: nine-year-old Oskar Schell, bereft after the death of his father in the World Trade Center, finds a mysterious key among his father’s possessions and embarks on a one-boy quest to find what the key will unlock. His only clue is the word “Black” on the envelope the key was inside.
Oskar is precocious—an inventor, a scientist, a tambourine-player, a Francophile—and knows so much about so much that the holes in his knowledge gape unfathomably. He’s also full of tics and fears and will pinch himself to make a bruise when something upsets him. Overall, he is an engaging and often funny narrator, getting a bit tiresome only from time to time (this review is of the audio version, so I cannot comment on the circled words, photos, fingerprints, and other marginalia featured in the print version).
Any book about a quest is about what the seeker learns along the way, and Oskar’s brief encounters with the multitudinous New Yorkers surnamed “Black” are well-imagined (especially 103-year-old Mr. A. Black who accompanies him on some of his searches). From them, eventually, he comes to terms with his guilt and grief. Yet the most important understanding he acquires, he finds at home, when he comes to understand there are many ways to respond to the loss of someone you love and not one “right” way.
Parts of the book are told from the point of view of Oskar’s grandmother and his grandfather, his father’s parents. For me, these lengthy flashbacks, told in the form of letters about their past, World War II Dresden, and their difficult relationship with each other, were not as interesting as the present-day story.
Foer has obvious affection for this character, his voice, and his quest to find out how his father really died after the “extremely loud and incredibly close”—and just how loud and how close we don’t find out until near the book’s end—tragedy of 9/11. I cannot help but wonder whether this affinity is related to his own experience, which Foer did not write about until 2010. When he was eight, a summer camp sparkler-making project went awry, and the explosion injured him badly and nearly killed his best friend. Part of that traumatized boy may have become Oskar.