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Love And Vengeance In Paul Auster's 'Sunset Park'

Nov 10, 2010

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Midway through Sunset Park, Paul Auster's exquisitely crafted, surprisingly tender new novel, book publisher Morris Heller eats breakfast on New Year's Day 2009 at Joe Junior's, a diner in the West Village where he last spoke with his estranged son Miles. The painful precision of how long it has been since he's seen his son — "more than two thousand seven hundred days ago" — resonates for anyone who has been on either end of a serious parent-adult child rift.

Sunset Park brings us a new Paul Auster, shifting from the intellectually exhilarating, elevating realms of metafiction and postmodern detective fiction to a story grounded in the potent emotions of love, loss, regret and vengeance, and the painful reality of current-day calamities like evictions and bankruptcies.

Miles Heller walked away from home one morning, at age 20, after overhearing his stepmother, Willa, say to his father, "He's a bright boy, I won't dispute that. But cold, Morris. Hollowed out, desperate. I shudder to think about the future."

After bouncing around the country, Miles has gone to work in south Florida "trashing out" houses after banks have foreclosed on their owners. He is doing a series of photographs of the abandoned things left in the wake of eviction, and living with a precocious 17-year-old named Pilar. (This relationship is the weakest link in the novel.)

Sunset Park is named after a section of Brooklyn, Auster's longtime home borough, a place he has written about at length — most recently in his 2005 novel, The Brooklyn Follies. Sunset Park is also among the more expansive novels in Auster's repertoire, offering half a dozen viewpoints (as opposed to the solitary writerly alter ego central to many Auster novels, beginning with his first in 1982, The Invention of Solitude).

So in addition to the Heller father and son, we hear from Miles' biological mother, a film actress who is staging a comeback on Broadway; his friend Bing, a "sloppy bear of a man" who runs the storefront Hospital for Broken Things, in Park Slope, and two women: Alice, a graduate student who works at PEN American Center in SoHo, and Ellen, an artist whose work is growing eerily more erotic. Bing, Alice and Ellen are squatters in a small frame house across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery. Bing calls at an opportune time, and Miles joins them.

Auster fans and newcomers will find in Sunset Park his usual beautifully nuanced prose and his unerring sense of structuring a story for dramatic intensity. This time around, his storylines converge in a tremendous crash bang of an ending.

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