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BOOK REVIEW

A poet shares tensions and tenderness in an ode to Brooklyn

By S. Kirk Walsh
June 27, 2011

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Meet Harry Quirk, the aging, fallen protagonist of Kate Christensen’s accomplished sixth novel, “The Astral.’’ At the story’s onset, the 57-year-old poet’s life has taken a precipitous turn for the worse: His longtime, Mexican-born wife, Luz, has kicked him out of their Greenpoint apartment after she becomes convinced that he is having an affair with his oldest friend, Marion, and destroys his most recent manuscript of corona sonnets that he had spent several years creating. At the same time, his 27-year-old son, Hector, has recently joined the ranks of a religious cult near Sag Harbor, and his lesbian daughter, Karina, 25, has dedicated her life to the marginal principles of freeganism by subsisting on foraging through dumpsters and organizing like-minded folks.

“The water below me rippled with tendons and cowlicks,’’ narrates Harry in the opening chapter. “Just across the brief waterway where the low mute banks of Hunters Point, church spire, low-slung old warehouses. An empty barge made its way down the creek toward the East River and the long glittering skyscrapery isle. I stood behind the chain-link fence the city had slapped up to keep the likes of me from jumping in.’’

For a good part of the narrative, a number of familiar coordinates define the orbit of Henry’s sorrowful existence — The Astral, a six-story tenement building where Harry lived with Luz and their offspring for almost three decades; Marlene’s, a dingy neighborhood bar that serves cheap drafts; and the couch where he sleeps in Marion’s apartment on the south side of Williamsburg. During the months of hazy shock following the separation from his wife, Harry attempts to understand how his life has unraveled into this messy web of demoralizing circumstances and strategize how he might regain his footing. “I wanted my memories all in one place until the end,’’ thinks Harry as he longs for his wife. “It didn’t matter what either of us had said or done. But maybe that was a kind of love.’’

Admittedly, Harry is not exactly a likable narrator, with his intractable selfishness and myopic worldview, for a majority of the story. But underneath his personal brand of chaos and melancholy, a reader can’t help but be pulled into his lyrical observations of the city, the people around him, and his own limited humanity. “The streets gleamed with rain,’’ thinks Harry. “The river was milky, the wind warm and noxious, all traces of the morning’s splendor crushed by diesel fumes and commerce. It happened every single spring day in Brooklyn; awaken to fresh glory, fall asleep to blight and ruin.’’ Later, Harry observes about his old neighborhood: “I have so much history here, I can’t walk down any street without thinking of a thousand things that happened on it, without seeing someone I recognize. . . . I had started to think I was grafted onto this part of town.’’

Christensen is no stranger to skillfully slipping into the shoes of a male protagonist. Her second novel, “Jeremy Thrane,’’ follows the literary misadventures of an aspiring gay poet of the same name. “The Epicure’s Lament,’’ her third novel, centers on an affluent recluse’s diary months before his attempted suicide. Not once during “The Astral’’ did this reader ever feel like the narrative strayed from the vivid, first-person voice of Harry. Another pleasure of this novel is that Christensen manages to shape this itinerant narrative with unexpected tensions and tenderness. By the conclusion, Harry alters his ways, moving outside the familiar grooves of his old life and begins to chart new territory of employment and relationships. Taken altogether, this entertaining novel reads like an ode to Brooklyn and broken marriages, endings and beginnings, and the spaces in between.

S. Kirk Walsh, a fiction writer in Austin, Texas, can be reached at skirk.walsh@gmail.com.

THE ASTRAL

By Kate Christensen

Doubleday, 311 pp., $24.95