Sunset Park is a neighborhood in western Brooklyn, New York, where four young people are squatting in an abandoned house. The central figure among them is Miles Heller, who has severed ties with his father and mother from his late teens to his mid-twenties and is on the verge of reconnecting. He’s been drifting, having dropped out of Brown after his junior year, and doing menial jobs around the country. Now he’s been taken in by his boyhood friend, Bing, and waiting for his girlfriend, Pilar, to pass her eighteenth birthday in Florida so they can resume a relationship that Miles has begun to envision culminating in marriage.
Miles’s father, Morris, is a publisher, based in Manhattan. His mother, Mary-Lee, left Morris and Miles soon after Miles’s birth. She became a successful, versatile actress, based in California Morris’s second wife, Willa, had a son named Bobby. Miles’s problem is that he thinks he was the accidental cause of Bobby’s death. This has a lot to do with his extended disappearance.
The novel traces the trajectory of these characters--and the other squatters--with narrative fluency. As the novel settles into New York, picking up publishing and theater contexts, it reminds you of Joan Didion’s memoir, Blue Nights. This is how New York is; this is how New Yorkers are. And lots of them, maybe most of them, have kids with problems...while said kids don’t think their problems are their parents’ problems at all...they think they’re living their own lives.
I enjoyed reading Sunset Park even as it disappointed me. This is almost reportage or something like a synopsis of a potentially longer, more complex novel. A fair amount of character-development has to do with borrowings from American popular culture: the financial meltdown, old movies, old baseball players, favorite greasy-spoon diners, quandaries about sexual identity. This is pretty easy, familiar stuff, but something has to happen to such stuff when it goes from the newspapers into novels, and it doesn’t really happen in Sunset Park.
I asked myself why and came up with this: Auster doesn’t go deep enough into his characters’ psychic ground. And he fails to get there, it seems to me, because he writes the book largely in the present tense, which provides fleeting, dramatic immediacy but little depth. Again, that sense that the book is being reported, not written. Novels are not, ideally, reports on contemporary existence. They are existence itself. Not Sunset Park. Sunset Park moves with the mastery one would expect of someone as accomplished as Auster, and yet it is something like a stone skipping across a creek, from character to character, barely getting wet.
One very odd element is the introduction of a diary Morris Heller keeps toward the end of the book. Up to that point Morris is depicted as a sympathetic, troubled father whose one mistake in his second marriage virtually destroys it (and his second wife, Willa). But the diary represents his relationship having changed with his son, Miles, such that, despite their reunion, he refers to him consistently as “the boy.” He doesn’t call him Miles, just the boy this...the boy that...the boy if...the boy but... I’m sure Auster’s idea is to reflect Morris’s disappointment from and alienation from Miles. This isn’t a tale where the prodigal son is really welcomed home, but a father elevating himself to the point where he refers to his son not by his name but as “the boy” strikes a very false, patronizing, arch, and distasteful note. We know enough about Morris to know he isn’t perfect, all-knowing, and detached from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, so when Miles becomes “the boy” in his mind (and heart), he’s cheapened and becomes less credible and compelling. It’s too late in the novel for this to happen.
Sunset Park ends with Miles back in trouble again. I won’t go into the details, but it’s clear that Auster is condemning not just the heartlessness of the father but also of the enveloping modern world in which the son must live. Once again this is a news bulletin we already have registered without reading the novel.
For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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