Goofy larks like 1999’s Timbuktu aside, it’s more or less clear what to expect from Paul Auster by now. Dogged by their pasts and undermined by absent parental figures, characters embark on quests for identity that usually cut through a wilderness of self-imposed exile, asceticism, or both. The recession novel Sunset Park chokes up on the formal experimentation and metatextual touches, even as it glides along the narrative grooves cut by Auster’s previous work. They’re well-worn for a reason, and while the size of the cast means some characters are given short shrift, their collective dream of belonging somewhere or to someone is potent, and well-served by Auster’s uncomplicated prose.
Miles Heller is a bookish hermit trashing out Florida homes in foreclosure. He’s serving time for past sins, like Jim Nashe in The Music Of Chance or David Zimmer in The Book Of Illusions, when an encounter with Pilar, a girl whose effervescent intelligence belies her age, sees him falling in love and then falling in with a band of Brooklyn squatters in order to avoid prosecution. It wouldn’t be a Paul Auster novel without the intervention of brutish fate, so baseball, “a universe as large as life itself,” provides totemic figures like Herb Score and Jack “Lucky” Lohrke to double-underline the acts of happenstance that keep Miles estranged from his father Morris, a publisher teetering on the edge of insolvency, and his mother Mary-Lee, a well-preserved actress currently performing Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. (Auster is often compared to Beckett, though he denies the influence.)
Miles’ roommates Nathan Bing, Ellen Brice, and Alice Bergstrom are having their own difficulties resolving themselves to their pasts, and the novel could easily have grown ponderous if Auster were forever slowing down the narrative to allow these characters time to catch up and develop, but he keeps things brisk by hitching them in various ways to The Best Years Of Our Lives, a Hollywood melodrama about soldiers returning home after World War II, in something of a companion piece to Park. When he isn’t playing film critic, Auster indulges in minor format excursions like dipping into Morris’ diary entries, or recasting Miles’ dinner with his mother as a playlet. Compared with Invisible’s collage of first, second, and third-person narration, these detours can feel a bit pat, and the dialogue, especially in the early going with Pilar and her sisters, borders on clumsy. But until the climax, when the doomed plates come crashing down, it’s a neat trick to see Auster keep all these characters spinning in place, with or without the flashy invention that’s come to define him as an author.