Following up his 2012 memoir Winter Journal, which was devoted to his physical development and decay, novelist Paul Auster turns to his moral and intellectual maturation in his new memoir, Report From the Interior. And while Auster’s reflections on his early life are often fascinating, especially to us old timers long enough in the tooth to have been around to remember fondly most all of the things he talks about, this is an uneven book. It is not Auster at his best.
Report From the Interior is essentially divided into four parts. The first section, which gives the work its title, deals with his life from his first memories through his early teens. It even begins with an imagined nod to the infant’s experience of the world. It is by far the best part of the book. Whether he is describing the young child’s understanding of what he was watching on television, his embarrassment at wetting his bed while at camp, or his possible meeting with Yankee pitching star Whitey Ford, his writing is precise and evocative.
Born in 1947, he paints the cultural landscape of much of the United States in the period after the war. His New Jersey boyhood was in one sense a metaphor for boyhood in America, but in some respects it is the things that were different, the things that were perhaps responsible for making him into the world renowned author, that may be the really significant things. So, there is the early love of reading. There are the trips to the library, the books given as gifts. He can remember the first book he ever bought, The Modern Library edition of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. There are the early attempts at writing.
He describes the child’s faith in American ideals and the gradual recognition that real life didn’t always live up to those ideals. He begins to understand that being Jewish, even though his family wasn’t religious, he was somehow different. He refuses to sing Christmas carols. He experiences urban flight. He sees the treatment of blacks; he sees how the Indians had been dealt with, and he identifies with them. He, like them, is an outsider.
“Two Blows to the Head,” the second section, is devoted to the detailed description of two films and their effects on the boy. First, he spends some 25 pages going over the plot of The Incredible Shrinking Man which he saw when he was ten years old, and 38 pages describing I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang which he saw on television when he was about 14. Now whole both films may have well made a significant impression upon the young boy, I’m not sure why we need page after page of narrative detail. A shorter summary with more explanation of the effects of the film would have done the job.
The third section, “Time Capsule,” is based on letters written to his first wife before their marriage beginning when he was 19 and running through his college career. Surprisingly, much of the chapter simply quotes from the letters, surprising because more often than not, the letters don’t paint a flattering picture of the young Auster. He comes off as full of himself, certainly bright, but just as certainly making sure the young lady knows how bright he is. One has to admire the elder Auster’s willingness to expose the callow younger man.
The book ends with a collection of pictures illustrating material in each of the first three sections. “The Album” consists of 107 pictures ranging from Felix the Cat and Peter Rabbit, Joe McCarthy and Thomas Edison, to war photos, Adlai Stevenson political posters, and Nathan’s in Coney Island. Younger readers will find them helpful illustrations of much that they might not recognize, like the Calumet Baking Soda can; older readers will welcome the picture of the Philco radio as a remembrance of things past.