The appeal of Paul Auster’s new novel, Sunset Park, steadily grew on me. I came to know the characters better, the past that brought them to their present situations, and what their future course, if any, is likely to be. And along the way, I came to like each of them more and more.
In a word, I really became immersed in the novel and by the end I didn’t want our friendships to end. Isn’t one of the things every reader is looking for in a novel? One of the characters says: He has never been able to put his finger on the line that separates art from life. That is true of most of the novels that engage me.
We first meet Miles Heller, the central character, who is working perfunctorily “trashing out” foreclosed houses in Florida, getting rid of all the things left behind when the residents are evicted. They always leave their house littered with trash.
“In a collapsing world of economic ruin and relentless, every expanding hardship, trashing out is one of the few thriving businesses in the area…In the beginning, he was stunned by the disarray and the filth, the neglect.”
Miles has come to the end of the line. He has no plans, no ideas, no real hope that his days will improve. Other than trashing out homes he spends his days doing next to nothing—reading, thinking walking, watching films, following the news.
He is haunted by the memory of his stepbrother’s death. It occurred while they were walking together on a country road and arguing about some trivial matter. But their argument got out of hand, leading Miles to shove his angry brother into the road, right in the path of an oncoming car.
“He doesn’t know if Bobby’s death was an accident or if he was secretly trying to kill him. The entire story of his life hinges upon what happened that day…he still can’t be certain if he is guilty of a crime or not.”
Miles flees New York and the home of his father and stepmother, never letting them know where he is or making any contact over the course of the next seven years. Eventually, he is jolted out of his grief by meeting and then falling in love with Pilar whom he first sees in a park reading The Great Gatsby. Pilar is smart, rather a precocious intellectual so it seems. But she is also “underage,” only sixteen.
And while they share an ardent devotion to one another, to avoid arrest for having an affair with an underage minor, Miles eventually returns to New York and takes up residence in an abandoned house with three other people.
We meet each of them, in turn—Bing, his close friend, who runs the Hospital for Broken Things where he repairs broken typewriters, rotary phones, fountain pens, cherished objects from the past. We meet Alice who is working on her Ph.D. dissertation and Ellen who is an artist of sorts who suffers history of mental illness. Each of these lost souls captured my sympathy too.
Finally, after several false starts and many imagined reunions, (“…that played out in your head so many times over the years were bound to be richer, fuller, and more emotionally satisfying than the real thing”) he makes contact with his actress stepmother and book publisher father, Morris Heller.
Morris has been scrambling to publish worthwhile books to avoid bankruptcy at Heller Books. Yet, he knows that even if he fails, he will be able to write his memoir with the title, “Forty Years in the Desert: Publishing Literature in a Country Where People Hate Books.”
Even though Miles is warmly reconciled with his parents, Sunset Park ends somberly as he flees New York once again. As he is driving across the Brooklyn Bridge looking at the huge buildings on the other side of the East River, he, like so many others who have viewed this skyline recently, thinks about the,
“…missing buildings, the collapsed and burning building that no longer exist…and he wonders if it is worth hoping for a future when there is no future, and for now he will stop hoping for anything and live only for now, this moment, this passing moment, the now that is here and then not here, the now that is gone forever.”