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Canadian writer Rawi Hage grew up in Beirut during the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when the relentless bombing and geopolitical gamesmanship attendant with Lebanon’s civil war made the word “Beirut” a kind of shorthand for pointless urban destruction. In his first novel, De Niro’s Game, Hage uses his native city as a canvas on which he paints a gorgeous and revolting portrait of living with war. His subject is fascinating, but more compelling is how he carves out a writing style that mixes modern Mideast horrors with American movie imagery and Arabic poetic tradition. De Niro’s Game is the story of Bassam and his friend George, two young men coming of age during Beirut’s war years. Bombs drop around them like rain, and honest work is useless. For money and entertainment, the two dig up trouble and scams. “War is for thugs,” Bassam says. “Motorcycles are also for thugs, and for longhaired teenagers like us, with guns under our bellies, and stolen gas in our tanks, and no particular place to go.” Seen through Bassam’s eyes, the Christian militia that George joins is not a political movement, just an escalation in thuggery. As his friend is drawn deeper into the crimes of war, Bassam desperately seeks escape. The tragic arc of the novel—its title refers to Russian roulette as played in the movie The Deer Hunter—is a given, of course. But Hage uses Bassam’s inevitably hopeless fate to free the story from the moorings of plot and outcome and instead revels in the poetry of language. Hage’s prose is at once starkly realistic yet thrillingly alive with dark fancy, as if Kahlil Gibran smoked hash with Hunter S. Thompson, stumbled bleary-eyed through the city, and freestyled for whomever might care. Here’s one typically sinuous passage: “She was sticking needles into the white gown of a young bride whose wedding would take place in a small chapel with an electronic recording of pitiful bells scratching like an old 1930s record, and whose father had accepted a middle-aged Canadian engineer for a son-in-law, and whose mother was busy making dough and gathering chairs and cutting parsley for the big day, and whose brother was planning to fire his gun in the air in celebration of his sister’s official deflowering, and whose cousin would drive her, in his long, polished car, to the church and then to the ship on the Mediterranean Sea. The sea that is filled with pharaoh tears, pirate ship wreckage, slave bones, flowing rivers of sewage, and French tampons.” Critics rightly acclaimed De Niro’s Game when it was published in Canada last year. But what it’s about—harsh life amid urban warfare—wrongly overshadows what it is—a soaring, lyrical triumph. Hage is surely unloading autobiographical sensations from his homeland. But this novel isn’t reportage; it’s troubling and transcendent art.