Even the strongest were weak…even the bravest lacked courage; even the wisest were ignorant. Paul Auster
Paul Auster’s Leviathan recounts a long and complicated story with a good deal of action and almost as much talk. It begins with a man being killed in a bomb blast. We learn from the narrator Peter Aaron that it was his long time friend Benjamin Sachs. Was it an accident or a suicide?
Both Sachs and Aaron are writers. They met on a snowy night in New York after their joint appearance at a reading was cancelled and became great friends afterward. Aaron knows what happened and wants to write the story before the FBI tracks him down.
Sachs is a troubled man. He writes, he spends days wandering around the city, and escapes to his cabin in Vermont from time to time. While he is deeply in love with his wife, Fanny, he disappears one day, is never found, and is presumed to be dead.
In fact, while walking out in the woods in Vermont, he meets a man who threatens him with a gun. Sachs ends up killing the man and runs off with a bag full of one hundred dollar bills he finds in the guy’s truck. Sachs becomes a wanted man. After driving across the country for days, he ends up in Berkeley.
He calls a friend in New York, explains where he is and why. She pledges secrecy and gives him the number of a friend of hers. He calls, she is willing to have him stay for awhile, eventually they fall in love (nothing like proximity) but he can’t remain there forever.
The story moves on, it has a nice momentum, several mysteries remain unsolved, and so I keep reading. It gets more complicated, there are multiple identities, other romances, and I have only given you a partial account, saying nothing at all about the narrator, Peter Aaron and his life. You have to like this sort of novel to stay with it.
Earlier we learned that Sachs had been in prison for his strong opposition to the Vietnam War. He decides to start down this path once again, learns how to build bombs, purchases the materials to assemble them, and works his way back and forth across the country blowing up replicas of the Statue of Liberty in those scattered communities where they stand.
It is never made entirely clear why Sachs is doing this other than his general anti-establishment views. But we know he is a man of action, not words. “You’re confusing thoughts and deeds. There’s a world of difference between doing something and just thinking about it.”
An accident happens, one of his bombs goes off prematurely, and Sachs is killed. It appears to be an accident. Maybe yes, maybe no. Finally the FBI finds Peter Aaron. However, it’s too late, he has already finished his manuscript and his novel can be published.
Is Auster trying to tell us something? Perhaps he wishes to remind us that life is nothing but a random chain of coincidences. That each event is in one or another connected with every other one. Or that freedom can be dangerous. More likely he simply wants to tell a good story.
Some critics view Auster as a pre-modernist, others as a modernist, still others as thoroughly post-modern. Others have found one fault after another with the way Auster writes. And then there are some critics who claim the narratives in Auster’s novels are all pretty much the same. Let them have their say. In no way did their views interfere with my enjoyment of Leviathan.