by Artie Van Why
Review by Bill Kirton
This was an interesting reading experience. Any book about an event as history-changing as the destruction of the World Trade Center brings with it an expectation of solemnity, tragedy, grief, enormity. And it’s this expectation itself which conditions our responses before we even read a word. I’m not sure that we want to read details of the horror, the thousands of individual tragedies, the cataclysmic nature of it all, but perhaps we expect to.
It’s a realisation I came to as I was reading That Day in September because I found myself becoming impatient with the writer’s focus on the ordinariness of his own life as well as the specific stresses of becoming an actor and coming to terms with his sexual identity. In the end, though, I came to realise that this was an integral part of how his and others’ lives had been affected by 9/11 and that it was my preconceptions about the event and how it might be reported that were intruding.
Even though the disaster looms in the background throughout, he tells the story directly and simply, in measured, unsensational tones – how and why he came to live in New York, where he lived and worked, the routines he developed, the people he saw. In other words, he paints a picture of ‘normal’ lives being lived and enjoyed by people following their own comfortable, even bland routines. And it’s the very ordinariness of these scenes that gives the true impact to the event that exploded into them that day in September.
There’s even some self-deprecating, tongue in cheek humour, such as when, on the last day of his first trip to New York and still not having resolved his sexuality, he had the choice of visiting the Empire State Building or World Trade Center. Instead, in his words, ‘My choice was to see Liza Minnelli in The Act. And I still didn’t have a clue.’ Or when, speaking of auditioning for a part, he writes ‘whether because of my limitless talent or their desperation they offered me the role’.
Even though his alcoholism was part of his life before 9/11, we sense that the self-disgust he feels about it is now coloured by his survivor guilt. And that’s part of the realisation I mentioned earlier. When he writes (again, referring to the time before the event), ‘perhaps it was time to ask myself what it was I truly wanted. What it was I wanted to be doing. Time to look at whatever gifts or talents I might have’, that could simply be the all-too-familiar ‘therapy-speak’. But he’s writing from his post 9/11 perspective, the perspective of someone who has seen fellow humans flailing to their death, who has knelt beside a still-conscious man with a shattered skull, who has stepped from his place of work into an apocalyptic nightmare. And so the words have a new, more demanding context and significance – one which elevates the terms ‘life’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ to hitherto untouched levels. The ‘what am I doing with my life?’ question is spoken in a new register, against a whole new understanding of what living is and how fragile it can be.
In the end, too, while never trying to analyse the crime or the motives of those who perpetrated it, he overcomes the fragmentation it represents and accepts it as part of who he now is. He absorbs it and makes it accessible in his own way. Part of that is by affirming his religious faith but mostly it’s in his actions, as exemplified in the short chapter entitled Joe and Judd. They were two ‘frat boys’ who worked in the south tower. He didn’t know them personally but their photos were taped to the door of his building. Van Why writes that ‘Grieving them was a way for me to express my grief for all the lives that had been taken that day’. It establishes proportions that are manageable, brings together the vast and the tiny, fragility and courage, despair and endurance. Joe and Judd represented ‘all those young, young men and young women who, as they went to work that morning of the 11th, had their whole lives ahead of them’.
And, eventually, while admitting that his whole life has been irrevocably altered by the experience and that he thinks about it every day, he manages to transform it into something meaningful, something which has helped him to answer those seemingly trivial questions about his identity, his gifts and talents, his purpose. With all those young men and women in mind, he recognises that ‘Every cliché about living for today now seems like the greatest wisdom’ and, with resignation but also with defiance, he ends by affirming that ‘to honor those who are gone I will not forget to live’.