Following the death of his father, a disgraced judge, psychologically disheveled Matthew Stone is drawn into a pre-9/11 terrorist plot by Jewish extremists in Brooklyn.
Stone, an only child whose grandfather was a notorious gangster, clings to the belief that his father was clean—that he didn't, among other alleged misdeeds, rig a jury to let off the Jewish killer of a Palestinian shopkeeper. The substance-abusing, self-mutilating Matthew's greatest source of comfort is wearing the judge's robes and reading his vast collection of books, viewing the underlined passages as clues to his distant old man's true identity. But Stone's misery and confusion intensify with the sudden appearance of his Israeli "Uncle Zal," an old friend of his father's, who, beneath his expressions of caring and religiosity, is mainly interested in gaining access to the vast amount of money the judge left behind; Matthew's mother, an acclaimed painter who left the family when he was 12, who now warns him to stay away from Zal; and an FBI agent who wants Stone to be his confidential informant on the terrorist plot. At its best, the book is a gripping and timely look into a subculture that's bonded by loyalty but driven by hate to avenge anti-Jewish crimes. Papernick, a Boston-based Toronto native who's spent time in Israel, does a good job of sketching the historical context of his characters' actions. But Stone is so self-loathing that he never earns our sympathy, and he's such a bundle of unresolved conflict and doubt that even the author seems unsure of who he is in the end. His ill-fated romances, with a Palestinian girl in Jerusalem and a Jewish girl with hidden motives in Brooklyn, are the least successful parts of the novel.
Papernick (The Ascent of Eli Israel, 2002, etc.) plows fresh ground in this terrorist thriller, but for all the book's strong background elements, the young protagonist is such a mess that he loses the reader's interest.