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Book Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

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Paul Auster returns to Brooklyn in his 2010 novel, Sunset Park, although not with the same kind of enigmatic Kafkaesque overtones of his earlier visits. His characters are faced less with an incomprehensible world neither they nor we can understand, than they are victims of their own fears and insecurities. Reminiscent of the group hero featured in some of the naturalistic dramas of the last century, the novel is less about one central figure than it is about a set of people, four squatters in an abandoned house in a run-down Brooklyn neighborhood and the family of one of those squatters. Different sections of the book are told from the point of view of six different characters.

While these are all different kinds of people in many respects — a young woman who sells real estate, a graduate student writing her dissertation, a college drop out in love with a teenager, a musician “wannabee” who runs a fix-it shop, an independent publisher, and an aging actress — they all have one thing in common. In one way or another they are all wounded beings. Indeed, in one way or another, the wound is the dominant thematic trope of the novel. From the time the idea is developed in a schoolboy’s essay on To Kill a Mockingbird and its reiterations in a variety of discussions of the classic ’40s film The Best Years of Our Lives and the emphasis on the injury ending career of Cleveland Indian pitcher Herb Score and others, it is made clear that wounds are endemic to life. As one character asserts, “wounds are an essential part of life, and until you are wounded in some way, you cannot become a man.” It is the necessity to go on living in spite of one’s wounds that is man’s burden and in some sense his blessing. It is in overcoming one’s wounds, physical or emotional, that one realizes his or her potential as a human being.

If there is a central character in the book, it is Miles Heller. Son of the publisher and the actress who were divorced soon after his birth, he has left school and broken off all contact with his family as a result of intense guilt over the death of his step brother. When the novel begins, he is living in Florida, working as a trash remover in houses which have been foreclosed on, and having an affair with an underage teen. He returns to Brooklyn to live as a squatter in Sunset Park with Bing, an old friend and two other women, Alice and Ellen, who had been roommates in college. All four are more or less emotionally wounded in one way or another, as are Miles’ parents, and all of them must find a way to live in spite of those wounds.

But it is not only the characters who are wounded. The world they live in is wounded as well. It is a world where a financial crisis has put people on the streets collecting cans and bottles for the deposit money, where the publishing industry is going down the drain, where dissidents are not tolerated. It is a world where the broken and old, everything from typewriters and houses to people are simply abandoned and left to rot, where the dead are buried and forgotten. Auster has written a compelling critique of our modern society and its effects on the people who are doomed to live out their lives in it. Whether or not it is possible to live productively and meaningfully in such a world is the question, it is a question that may or may not have an answer by the time you get to the end of Sunset Park.

Paul Auster is a truly exciting writer and in Sunset Park, he is at the top of his game. He creates characters that are human in their flaws and their passions. He puts them in situations that test their humanity. He writes with a style that is both literate and accessible. He is a novelist to be reckoned with.

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