‘Falling Man’: New Don DeLilllo Novel Inspired by 9/11 AP Photo

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By: Greg Mitchell

Don DeLillo has long been one of my favorite novelists — the master of late-20th century dread — going back to the days of “White Noise,” “Libra” and “Mao II,” and right up to the opening Pafko-at-the-Wall chapters of “Underworld.” Now he has returned with “Falling Man,” widely praised in reviews during the past two weeks, including a front-pager by Frank Rich in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

While I haven’t bought the book yet, I did read the phenomenal extract in The New Yorker last month. That selection focuses on a middle-aged man who survives the World Trade Center collapse and staggers into the apartment of his ex-wife covered in blood and soot and carrying another man’s briefcase. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but I’ll let you consult one or more reviews to learn more.

What I’d like to turn to here is the inspiration for the title of the book, if not the whole novel: Richard Drew’s iconic photo for the Associated Press of one of the “jumpers” from the twin towers, a man in a white chef’s type shirt and black pants, captured by the lens plunging headfirst, with tragic dignity.

As E&P explored at the time, several papers published that photo, some in large scale, but many drew criticism for that, and most others never did print it. It?s been called ?the most famous picture that was never seen,? but it went on to win many awards and haunt the dreams of millions. In the DeLillo book, a performance artist repeatedly re-enacts the image, dangling from balconies attached to a cord.

David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, explored the Drew photo in his excellent 2006 book, “Watching the World Change.” He told one interviewer, ?It was confined to the far reaches?it was too much to take at the time.”

Others have tried to identify the man in the Drew picture, most notably, Tom Junod for an article in Esquire. His search was later turned into a documentary by Henry Singer called (of course) “The Falling Man.”

On the first anniversary of 9/11, E&P went back and interviewed many of the photographers and reporters who had journeyed to Ground Zero that day. We learned that Drew, a veteran shooter of foreign wars and various disasters, was covering a maternity fashion show in Midtown when he received his orders to head for the Twin Towers. There he hid from the police as they tried to clear people from the area and continued taking photos.

He told us:

“I’ve been at the AP 32 years. I’ve covered my share of disasters and earthquakes and fires. You get a feel of what’s what, what can be put out, and what can’t. [So when], all of a sudden, people started falling out of the tower, I started photographing it. I photographed maybe a dozen jumping. I was the only photographer on that spot then.

“A woman paramedic was standing next to me watching. The people were dropping and hitting the walkway. The sound was amazing. I could hear them hitting the ground.

“Then I heard a creaking sound, like a rock slide, and I started photographing the debris. I didn’t know it was the building coming down. An ambulance guy grabbed me and pulled me down the street.

“I won a prize for a picture of one of the people falling from the World Trade Center, headed perpendicular to the ground with his legs bent. He was a pastry chef at Windows on the World. A couple of papers that ran the picture received a lot of flak from their readers. But it shows a part of this person’s life.

“I feel my pictures put a human element on people on their way to their death. An Argentinean woman here did her master’s thesis on the photo. I’m not blas? about this. It’s the worst event I’ve covered ? and I was in the kitchen with Robert Kennedy in 1968 when he was shot. I still have a blood-spattered shirt.”

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