“Tomorrow Jonas’s day belonged to a greater cause. Tomorrow he would be pure energy, a spark and a flash, a name on a million lips. But today he was just Jonas, Manhattan Jonas, Upper West Side Jonas, young man Jonas…”
Those hours between being Manhattan Jonas and being on a million lips – those tightly stretched 31 Hours, to be precise – did not so much belong to a greater cause as belong to the actions of a foolish and immature young 21-year old who deceives himself and many others that he is a sensitive and impressionable martyr and not the monster he truly is. Yes, he is overwhelmed by his rage and passion over the world’s injustices, to the point of irrationality (“We’re all terrorists… Every single one of us…”); despite the subtle and ever less-and-less sparsely set signs of mental instability (“He feels like something’s missing, like the world is immoral and only he sees it”); and, protestations aside, his proneness to violence and all-out destruction (“He wanted, after all this, nothing short of the collapse of Rome").
And yes, this man of peace, faith, and understanding — intent to make a statement to a hardened and hypocritical populace in his new role as an Islamic suicide bomber – will be strapping on a vest of explosives, leaving his safe-house beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and entering the New York City subway system with six others to right the world’s wrongs by taking his life and as many other innocent others as he can.
As author Masha Hamilton skillfully interweaves the sequence of events and the telling of the tale from various perspectives, 31 Hours belongs just as much – if not more so — to Jonas’ mother Carol Meitzner from the start, from her woman’s intuitive premonition when she woke up and “sat fully upright, an inhale caught in her chest,” her mind “filled with Jonas. Her son. Her wild-haired precious.” She had been concerned about his erratic moods and depression, and realizes she had not heard from Jonas in several days. It’s a worry that translates into action as Carol initiates a game plan of sorts, journeying through the city on a mission, contacting family and friends, in down times reflecting on the inner-life of her only son, splendidly explicated in Hamilton’s nuanced, scalpel-sharp,and inspired prose:
Ever since adolescence, Jonas had suffered from periods of overcast internal weather. He asked for so much from life. He demanded the stripping away of the skin; he insisted on seeing all the way to the muscles and veins, but if those muscles seemed insubstantial, the veins too paltry to carry the essential rush of blood, he was disappointed as an old man finished with his days. At those times, when he spoke, he voice would catch on some random word, as if everything was about to be too much for him. Sometimes, in those depression periods, she felt Jonas was lost to her, wandering alone in a bitter night, carrying only a flashlight with a beam too hesitant and shallow to guide him home.
Carol, in addition to contacting the authorities – who identify Jonas as a home-grown terrorist who had traveled to Pakistan for special training — calls upon others who know the “real” Jonas: her ex-husband, Jake; Jonas's girlfriend, Vic, a dancer whose longtime friendship with Jonas recently turned to love; and Vic's younger sister, Mara, who feels she must carry the burdens of a broken family on her shoulders. Also in the mix is Sonny Hirt, a personable homeless man with a sixth sense that provides him with portent of impending tragedy while he spends life underground in the subway, a crossroads of humanity in which we come to know the full bearing a terrorist attack on the subway systems would cause.
It is all the more remarkable that Hamilton not only balances these secondary characterizations, subplots, and back stories in a craftsman-like manner, but that she seamlessly integrates them within the main plot as back-of-my-mind narrative embellishments, all the more humanizing the warts-and-all world that, by extension, Jonas would wipe out with "Something significant. The Gandhi alternative seemed grandiose and improbable in the current day. This was an age of sanctioned violence — air strikes, not hunger strikes."
Perceptive and cohesive throughout, 31 Hours makes for tautly-building suspense as each chapter’s changing viewpoint centers on closing in on Jonas' whereabouts and narrowing in on his progress as he tries to widen the descriptive gap between being “just Jonas" and "a spark and a flash." After all, amid the pulse-pounding and heartrending moments evoked, he has some "sanctioned violence" to attend to — if he isn't stopped first.