'Sunset Park': Paul Auster's novel of one young man in recession-era America
A review of novelist Paul Auster's "Sunset Park," the story of Miles Heller, who cleans out foreclosed homes in Florida but flees to Brooklyn in search of a new life and redemption.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 311 pp., $25
Paul Auster novels are often troubling enigmas, unfolding for the reader in gripping and unpredictable ways. In reviewing his new book, "Sunset Park," I chose to avoid reading the promotional material from the publisher so I could enjoy the unspoiled experience of suspense and discovery. I wasn't disappointed, and if you want to be similarly enthralled, I suggest that you put aside this review for now and come back to it after you've read the book — though I promise not to reveal all.
Auster makes recession-era America seem post-apocalyptic. Miles Heller is a "trash out" worker, cleaning the glut of abandoned, foreclosed houses in South Florida. He and his co-workers are supposed to return anything of value to the bank, but most of them take their share of the spoils.
At age 28, Miles is on spiritual life-support. Haunted by the death of his stepbrother 10 years earlier — it was an accident, but he pushed Bobby into an onrushing car — he has been out of touch with his parents for seven years and has lost his moorings. "To have no plans, which is to say, to have no longings or hopes, to be satisfied with your lot, to accept what the world doles out to you from one sunrise to the next — in order to live like that you must want very little, as little as humanly possible."
The only glimmer of hope in his life is his girlfriend, Pilar Sanchez. She is still in high school, but they are deeply in love, and through his feelings for her, he begins to find his way out of the morass of his own making.
A turning point in the story comes when Pilar's older sister demands Miles steal and give to her some of the "trash-out" goods or she'll report him to the police for having a relationship with a 17-year-old girl. He flees instead, returning to New York City to join his friend, Bing, who has taken up illegal residence in an uninhabited house in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood.
Auster varies his narrative style, moving from third person to first person, and employing a powerful "you" voice when presenting the addled midlife of Miles' father, who also lives in New York. The multiple points of view — Miles, his parents, his fellow squatters — work to corroborate Miles' fundamental goodness and appeal. Even in his dysfunction, he is the binding force in their lives.
The novel also provides quirky lenses through which to view characters and their stories: literature, dissident writers, hard-luck baseball pitchers, and the classic movie about returning World War II soldiers, "The Best Years of Our Lives." The implication here is that Miles is a wounded veteran of his own personal war.
Auster builds a nice moral momentum as the past converges on the present. Miles reunites with his parents and appears to be getting back on track when redemption takes another unexpected turn. As remarkable as are Auster's skill and experience, this kind of writing — this kind of ending — takes another, rarer attribute: tremendous courage.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.