Book review of Paul Auster's 'Sunset Park'

By Rodney Welch
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 29, 2010; 7:53 PM


By Paul Auster

Henry Holt. 308 pp. $25

People do a lot of vanishing in Paul Auster's novels, and in any number of ways. Some desert their homes, adopt alternate personas, hand their lives over to someone else, or simply take a hike into the imagination. Some want to get away, or pay for their sins, or commit virtual suicide by obliterating their old life.

Usually, they are writers of one kind or another, who need to control the shape of their story. They also need an audience, despite their desire to stay hidden. There's Effing in "Moon Palace," who finds a hapless young man to listen as he dictates the account of how he faked his death, and Hector in "The Book of Illusions," a faded film star who devotes his life to making films that he can't show.

Auster is fascinated by absence, by the holes people create when they aren't there, particularly as it involves fathers and sons. His protagonists are sometimes rootless, orphaned young men, on a lifelong Oedipal odyssey for either a real father or a surrogate. These themes are recycled yet again in his latest novel, "Sunset Park," a curious ensemble piece with a lot of characters but not enough story to keep them interesting.

The young man is Miles Heller, a 28-year-old exile from a moderately well-to-do New York family. More than seven years ago, he went into hiding, wracked with guilt over his inadvertent role in the death of his stepbrother, Bobby, when both boys were in their teens. He's been wandering the country ever since, winding up in Florida, where he finds a job cleaning out repossessed homes and starts dating a 17-year-old Cuban hottie named Pilar.

When Pilar's greedy sister tries to blackmail Miles over sleeping with a minor, he takes up the invitation of an old friend, Bing, to join him in a squatters' settlement in Sunset Park, a run-down neighborhood in Auster's old stomping grounds of Brooklyn. Here, Bing runs a small business, the Hospital for Broken Things, where he fixes old manual typewriters, record players, rotary phones and anything else that's been discarded by modern high-tech culture.

Besides being Miles's most loyal friend, Bing is also the secret conduit to the Heller family, whom he alerts to the whereabouts of their missing son. Tension is in the air: Will Miles come home, and how should his family approach him if he does? Dealing with this question are Miles's father, Morris, who runs a small but esteemed indie press; his chilly stepmother, Willa, who was Bobby's mother; and Miles's own mother, Mary-Lee, a self-absorbed, somewhat disturbing woman who long ago fled the scene to become a famous actress. At the house in Sunset Park, Miles's roommates are two young women: bookish, weight-obsessed, college student Alice, and suicidal, sex-obsessed Ellen, who works as a real estate agent.

Auster wanders among all these characters, devoting chapters to each, teasing out connections of no particular interest. What do they all have in common? Only what's obvious. They're all broken, apparently, either because of age or decline or because they are out of date - decent, creative people who have been cast aside by a world devoted to making a buck.

Morris sells good literature despite a depressed market. Ellen, who draws almost as many penises as the kid in "Superbad," works to reignite her artistic career. Alice divides her time between scrutinizing "The Best Years of Our Lives" for her dissertation and working for a pittance at PEN International, where she writes letters in hopes of freeing jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. (High five, Alice. At least Sweden heard you.) There's a lot of talk about luck, who has it and who doesn't, and people replay their lives, posing big what-if questions. Morris wonders if he should have married his second wife first, Bing wonders if he's gay, everyone wonders if the brooding and immensely good-looking Miles will sleep with them, and Miles wonders how fate intervened in his own life.

One minor character, Morris's novelist pal, Renzo, considers writing an essay on "the things that don't happen, the lives not lived, the wars not fought, the shadow worlds that run parallel to the world we take to be the real world, the not-said and the not-done, the not-remembered." There's also the not-explained, such as why, when fate decides to interact with these characters, all it does is make everyone watch "The Best Years of Our Lives." The book could also use more of the not-expected, all hopes for which gradually vanish as the book slogs on.

In the end, "Sunset Park" feels like a needless bid for relevancy, an attempt to engage with the post-crash, post-literate, homeless culture, rigged to let Auster address whatever was on his mind when he sat down to write. He even shuts down the book for five pages to extol the virtues of PEN International. The result is a very moody "mood of the country" novel, a book of many parts that never really cohere in a satisfying way.

Welch frequently reviews books for the Columbia, S.C., Free-Times.

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