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Paul Auster Tackles Homelessness And Broken Hearts

Nov 10, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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When the writer Paul Auster turned 50, he started thinking about his own mortality, and his writing reflected that obsession. Now, Auster says, he is more interested in the problems facing young people today. In his latest novel, Sunset Park, he uses the nation's housing crisis as a backdrop for the story of a group of young people who are squatting in a house in a down-at-the-heels section of Brooklyn, not far from the tree-lined, prosperous neighborhood where the author himself resides.

The meaning of home (and homelessness) is at the core of Sunset Park — Auster says that home is a place where you should feel absolutely safe. "It's the place where you don't really have to defend yourself," the author says, speaking from his Brooklyn brownstone. "I think that's the idea everyone holds in his head, is that this is the place you are welcome no matter what you've done, no matter how rocky things have become for you. And unfortunately not everyone has this refuge."

Auster says that in the novel, he wanted to explore what happens when the sense of security that comes with home is taken away. The main character, Miles Heller, lives in self-imposed exile from his home and family in New York. As the book opens, Miles is working in Florida, clearing out the possessions of families who have been evicted. Circumstances force Miles to return to New York, where he takes up an old friend's offer to squat free in a rundown house in southern Brooklyn, a house that Auster based on a real one he saw in Sunset Park.

The neighborhood that captured Auster's imagination is an urban mix of small businesses, warehouses and residential buildings, with none of the charms of Auster's own tony neighborhood. It is not, as Auster says, "a desperate place," but instead he describes it as "mournful." The house that he channeled in the novel has since been demolished, but Auster remembers what it looked like the day he found it.

"It looked like a farmhouse from the Midwest built about 120 years ago," he says. "I thought this abandoned house would be the perfect place young people would want to break into and live there. And so I used that as the model in my head as I was writing the book."

The young people in Auster's imaginary house do break in and take over the house illegally, but do so for differing reasons. Bing, the instigator of the squatting, sees it as a political act. "Bing is a contrarian," Auster explains. "He's against everything that's happening, so he wants to strike a blow for some future world where there is more justice and more kindness. ... He conceives this as the best way to do it."

Auster touches on several political and modern-day issues in the book, squaring his fiction not only in a real neighborhood but in the middle of real-time events. At this moment in history, the author says, the sense of displacement in the book comes with the economic uncertainty that all too many people are experiencing.

"The germ of this book was the idea of someone being expelled, thrown out of the place where he lived," Auster says. "But the more I thought about it, the more I meditated, the more I saw that this problem was growing into an enormous social problem in the United States simultaneously. And so the inner condition of being dispossessed and also the outer condition of so many people living in this terrible flux of broken mortgages ... all coalesced into what the book became."

This sudden social consciousness is a departure for Auster, who is not known for addressing the issues of the day. Still, the novelist does not see Sunset Park as a deviation from his previous work. "History is present in all my novels," he says. "And whether I am directly talking about the sociological moment or just immersing my character in the environment, I am very aware of it."

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Sunset Park: A Novel
By Paul Auster
Hardcover, 320 pages
Henry Holt
List price: $25
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