New Yorker book critic James Wood wrote an article about author Paul Auster last year that masqueraded as a synopsis of a new novel before revealing itself as a parody using the tropes that Auster is known for. Intellectual male protagonist with a dark sense of loss? Check. Violent accident? Check. Doppelgangers akimbo? Check. Check.
The back-and-forth argument as to whether Auster is merely doing what postmodernist writers do—i.e., borrow liberally from popular culture as to point out the foibles of modern life and paucity of new ideas in the face of existential crisis—or has succumbed to the greasy but comforting business of slinging familiar fare like a grizzled line cook on the graveyard shift had all but killed my desire to read another Auster novel ever since. That was a shame.
I discovered Auster a few years ago and had jumped into the deep end quite quickly, devouring In the Country of Last Things, Leviathan, The Book of Illusions, and Oracle Night in short order. Maybe Wood was right, and Auster had become somewhat of a one-trick pony, but if it’s a good trick, what the hell? The weird thing? Wood’s parody actually sounded pretty good. Which brings us to Sunset Park.
Auster’s latest starts out like a parody of the parody, sort of a literary “fuck you” to the critics. We find twenty-eight-year-old Miles Heller mucking out foreclosures in Florida in his seventh year of self-imposed exile from his family after dropping out of college. Heller’s dark sense of loss stems from accidentally pushing his stepbrother in front of a speeding car while arguing on the side of a winding road in the Berkshires.
Heller is pretty screwed up, and although characters male and female seem to be powerless before his supposed charms, he’s not a sympathetic enough protagonist to hang a novel upon. He may have actually offed his brother on purpose, and he is carrying on with—that is to say, sodomizing—a seventeen-year-old Cuban girl.
It’s easy to see how Heller could have been emotionally stunted by his brother’s death, and the girl, Pilar Sanchez, is about the same age as he was when the break occurred. As hard as Auster tries to give their relationship credibility, gifting Sanchez with above-average intelligence and insatiable curiosity, it is still a little unseemly when she refers to her various orifices as the off-limits mommy hole, and the A-OK funny hole.
Given that this is an Auster book, this strange relationship is mirrored in the backstory of one of Heller’s roommates once he’s forced to retreat back to New York by a greedy, and possibly jealous, older Sanchez girl upon threat of incarceration for statutory rape. An old friend of Heller’s, the bearish Bing Nathan, and a group of like-minded twenty-somethings have opened up a squat in the seedy Sunset Park district just in time for Heller’s exile.
Ellen Brice, a woman who “projected an aura of anxiety and defeat,” had been impregnated at twenty by a sixteen-year-old who she had supposed to be watching. Brice, while physically and emotionally understated, is perhaps the key to Sunset Park. Auster’s novel is ultimately about depression, both national and personal, and the poor judgment that can arise from being in that state of mind. He has placed his box of broken characters smack down in the financial meltdown of 2008; the national malaise mirrors the feeling of Heller’s peers who have burned through their initial promise, and are now adrift.
The third squatmate, Alice Bergstrom, is neck deep in her dissertation for Columbia. She has become obsessed by William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives; a film that examines the difficulties soldiers returning from WWII had relating to domestic life once again. Heller and company don’t have the monolithic bummer of a world at war, but they do have the collapse of a system that was to provide each and every one of them a chance at the American Dream. It is interesting that among his peers, only the vindictive Sanchez sister, a recent immigrant, has the balls to grab ahold and squeeze what she can out of what little she is presented with.
Within all this, Auster weaves a thematic thread involving baseball pitchers; especially those who showed great promise then flamed out, often tragically. For my money, if you’re a New York author and you’re going to use baseball as a metaphor to describe the human condition, then you’re going to have to go up against Don DeLillo’s masterful set piece that opens Underworld. That bit transcended any interest one might, or might not have, in the detailed ephemera of the national sport. In the shadow of DeLillo’s big game, Auster’s latest pitch falls low and outside. Or maybe that’s the point.