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Book Review

Death, abandonment haunt Auster’s ‘Sunset Park’

Novel illuminates a cast of battered souls

Paul Auster’s latest novel is named for a neighborhood in New York City. Paul Auster’s latest novel is named for a neighborhood in New York City. (Stuart Ramson/AP/File 2003)
By Jan Stuart
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2010

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Manhattan’s Upper West Side is one of several New York City neighborhoods visited by “Sunset Park,’’ the latest and arguably most user-friendly among the whip-smart fiction canon of Paul Auster. Flanked by Columbia University to the north and Lincoln Center to the south, it was long regarded as the residential nexus of the city’s intellectual elite and artistic mavericks. That is, until the hyperinflated price tags wrought by the 1980s boom swept much of that crowd hither and yon.

Before then, it would not have been uncommon for the group of strivers who constitute the cultural commune at the locus of this winning novel — a musician, a photographer, a painter, a writer, and a student — to have shared one of those yawning West Side apartments that are now the exclusive domain of the youthful well-heeled and the aging rent-stabilized. In today’s down economy, Auster’s quintet are relegated to nesting near the cemetery headstones and abandoned factories of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where they squat illegally in an abandoned wastrel of a house the author describes as “a shack, a forlorn piece of architectural stupidity.’’

Abandonment in all its wrenching permutations is of pressing concern in “Sunset Park.’’ Miles Heller, the novel’s 28-year-old center of gravity, has made it a modus vivendi years after being dumped in infancy by his itinerant actor mother. Guilt-ridden over his part in the accidental death of his stepbrother, Miles takes a cue from many earlier Auster protagonists: He stops the world and gets off. Out goes Brown University, out go his father and stepmother, out go material possessions, and down he goes to Florida, where he trashes out personal belongings left behind in a sunbelt wasteland of foreclosed homes.

Miles’s seven years of ascetic exile come to an abrupt end when a passionate, not to say reckless, romance with the brainy 17-year-old Pilar Sanchez takes a threatening turn. Returning north, he takes a room in an abandoned, city-owned house appropriated by his old friend Bing, a band drummer with a blowsy Jack Black ambiance and a fix-anything shop called Hospital for Broken Things. Bing’s squatter’s pad, reflectingly, is a kind of hospital for battered souls, whose patients include Ellen, a lovelorn artist with painter’s block, Jake, a self-absorbed (and generally absent) writer, and Jake’s lover Alice, a financially strapped PhD student engrossed in a dissertation deconstructing the 1946 film classic “The Best Years of Our Lives.’’

Virtually everyone gets to weigh in on William Wyler’s postwar homecoming drama, whose title carries as much ironic import for Auster’s characters as it does for its assemblage of traumatized veterans and families. Auster, in kind, rotates his field of vision to give expansive attention to the interior lives of Miles’s own broken family: his polymorphously perverse mother, Mary-Lee; his publisher father; and his educator stepmother, Willa. Of the three, Auster elicits the greatest sympathy for Morris, a mensch of a guy who has trustingly allowed his estranged son the time and distance to sort out his troubles and is able to see past his ex-wife’s maternal shortcomings to marvel at her actorly ability “to make one feel she carries all humanity inside her.’’

Morris, having buried a son and two parents, embodies the book’s insistent awareness of mortality. While death has never been a stranger to Auster’s novels, it informs these pages in strange and stirring ways, most memorably an esoteric recounting of the last days of B-list actor Steve Cochran. These shadowy detours lend a welcome heart to a writer once revered as a gifted but chilly prince of post-modernism. In “Sunset Park,’’ Auster seems to carry all of humanity inside him.

Jan Stuart, a critic-at-large and author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece,’’ can be reached at jan.stuart7@gmail.com.

SUNSET PARK By Paul Auster

Henry Holt, 309 pp., $25