A well-written novel, “Heroic Measures,” by Jill Ciment, effectively combines three plot elements: a real estate transaction, a sick dog and terrorism in New York.
Alex and Ruth Cohen met while they were left-wing City College students and married in 1953. She worked as a schoolteacher for 30 years while he was a moderately successful artist.
For 45 years, they have been living in an East Village co-op apartment on the fifth floor of a building without elevators. They bought the apartment for $5,000, using Alex’s G.I. bill benefit. Now, too old to climb the stairs, they are trying to sell the apartment and buy a condo in a building that has an elevator. Following their real estate agent’s advice, they have set a price of almost $1 million. There are hilarious scenes involving prospective buyers and frantic bidding as the sale and their purchase of a new apartment proceed.
Not having any children, Alex and Ruth lavish their love on each other and on their dachshund, Dorothy, now 12 years old and sickly. Her hind legs have suddenly become paralyzed and they decide to take her to the animal hospital. It is more than 50 blocks north of their home and so they get a cab. However, traffic is jammed up and it takes them a long time to move. Finally, they get out five blocks short of their destination and they run, carrying the dog, the rest of the way. The doctor tells them that Dorothy may need surgery and admits the dog to the hospital. They make the trip home in a crowded, slow-moving bus.
The third element in the story is responsible for the dense traffic. A gasoline tanker truck has crashed in the Midtown Tunnel and the driver has disappeared. The police and the FBI have closed the tunnel while they search for the driver and attempt to determine if there is a bomb. The television channels are filled with this story, including an interview with the family of the truck driver who turns out to be Abdul Pamir, an emigrant from Uzbekistan who became an American citizen two years ago.
The story lines intersect, punctuated by further news about the hunt for Pamir, telephone calls from the animal hospital about Dorothy’s condition and reports from the real estate agent concerning bids for the apartment. While waiting for the sale of their apartment, Alex and Ruth look for a new place. Alex is concerned about having a second bedroom that he can turn into a painting studio where he can complete his project of illuminating the 906-page FBI file on him and Ruth.
In the midst of all this excitement, Alex and Ruth have dinner with their oldest friends who are also Alex’s gallery dealers. In a hilariously satiric scene, they go to Xza-Xzu, a new restaurant that serves “pan-equatorial” food and where the service leaves much to be desired. This spoof of trendy restaurants is matched by ridiculing the television channels, which excitedly report polls on such subjects as to whether or not terrorists take drugs, should a suspected bomber surrender if his mother calls and did the media go too far? They also introduce pundits who are supposed authorities on forensic psychology, traffic and mass hysteria.
All the action in the story takes place over a jam-packed weekend during which Ciment effectively introduces us to an attractive couple, a bizarre bomber and a delightful dog. She is the author of three previous novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir.
Born in Montreal, Ciment is a professor of English at the University of Florida. She richly demonstrates here that she is highly skilled in her subject, setting an outstanding example for her students while entertaining her readers.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)