Sunset Park by Paul Auster
As I've detailed previously here and elsewhere, Paul Auster is one of my all-time favorite authors. His New York Trilogy was a landmark book for me, and at least three others (Leviathan, The Music of Chance and The Brooklyn Follies) are also among my favorites.
Auster's books are usually dark and surreal, focused largely on a male protagonist that often increasingly seems like a projection of Auster himself.
David Mattin of The Independent describes the "essential Austerian concept" as this:
A male protagonist, often a writer, disillusioned and living in self-imposed, metropolitan exile; the exposition of some random, violent event that changed his life forever; intermittent baseball and other Americana; and, most famously, the intertextual, self-referential chink in all this dirty realism, which will be teased open in the final pages to reveal that nothing was what it seemed.Some of Auster's novels haven't worked from me, and some where they veer from this structure (Timbuktu, which many love, is one that failed for me) are in this set. Sunset Park definitely veers from the above path in some ways, but to me it succeeds across the board.
The story has several "main" characters, which get dedicated sections of the novel to themselves, but at the core is Miles Heller, a man in his late twenties who is purposefully rudderless, moving from city to city and intentionally cutting himself off from his family. Scarred by tragedy, Miles begins the novel in Florida working to clear out foreclosed homes, and taking pictures of the things left behind as either a hobby or obsession.
As an Auster fan, the location of Florida and not New York is jarring enough, and Auster quickly sweeps us into this different world:
For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things. There are at least two jobs every day, sometimes as many as six or seven, and each time he and his cohorts enter another house, they are confronted by the things, the innumerable cast-off things left behind by the departed families. The absent people have all fled in haste, in shame, in confusion, and it is certain that wherever they are living now (if they have found a place to live and are not camped out in the streets) their new dwellings are smaller than the houses they have lost. Each house is a story of failure—of bankruptcy and default, of debt and foreclosure—and he has taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present in the discarded things strewn about their empty houses.Soon, Miles relocates back to New York (for reasons I'll leave you to discover), where he grew up and his publisher scion father still lives, and his mother, a famous actress, is opening a play in Manhattan. Miles instead shacks up with Bing Nathan, a childhood friend and two others (Alice Bergstrom and Ellen Brice) who are squatting in a foreclosed home in the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn.
There, Miles begins to reconnect with his family after seven years of silence, and we see the story unfold as told by all of the characters including his parents. Though this could lend itself to a Rashomon/Mr. & Mrs. Bridge device where different perspectives tell different stories, Auster largely tells a straight, lovely story here. Set just two years ago, the tone rings true and along with The Financial Lives of the Poets seems like a book that captures a specific moment in time.
It's not a book that will work for everyone - those looking for the surreal will find this far too grounded, while others may not like that certain important moments in the book happen "off-camera," referenced and described as a recollection by one of the characters rather than seeing them unfold narratively like the rest of the novel. But it absolutely worked for me, and is absolutely worth your time.
A note: This is also the first book I've read on my new Kindle, a gift I got for my birthday. I had my concerns about how quickly I could transition to reading an electronic book. It turns out that time was almost nil, and the fact that I can also read on my iPhone through the Kindle app? Huge bonus. I suspect these eBooks are not going away any time soon.