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Paul Auster's 'Sunset Park' is a novel of reinvention

It's fitting that the central character of Paul Auster's new novel meets the love of his life while both are sitting in a park reading The Great Gatsby.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, Sunset Park is all about the American impulse toward reinvention. In the Roaring '20s, Jimmy Gatz's transformation into Jay Gatsby included fighting a war, making a questionable fortune and creating a dashingly romantic image. In these attenuated times nearly a century later, Auster's young protagonist, Miles Heller, walks away from a privileged life, drifts around the country and ends up a squatter in an abandoned house in Brooklyn.

Fitzgerald never introduced us to Gatsby's family, but Auster (Invisible, Travels in the Scriptorium) is as much interested in those Miles leaves behind as he is in Miles himself.

His father, Morris, publisher of a small but prestigious press, and his mother, Mary-Lee, a budding Hollywood star, divorce when he's a baby. He's raised almost entirely by his father and stepmother, Willa, a college professor. Miles is a precocious kid who, in sixth grade, writes an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird in which he notes of Atticus Finch's blind eye and the damaged arms of Tom Robinson and Jem Finch, "wounds are an essential part of life, and until you are wounded in some way, you cannot become a man."

Miles' wounds include an accident that killed his teenage stepbrother, an event for which he secretly fears he might be responsible. The wound that drives him from home while he's a college student is an overheard conversation between his father and stepmother in which she calls Miles "cold . . . hollowed out, desperate," and his father does not disagree.

The boy leaves a polite note and drops off the edge of the world. For seven years, he works menial jobs, lives monastically, moves often and avoids all but the most superficial relationships. He never contacts anyone from his past except a single school friend, a bearish, eccentric young man named Bing Nathan.

By 2008, as the financial crisis gains momentum, Miles is in South Florida working with a team that trashes out foreclosed houses. His one indulgence is a camera with which he photographs the objects homeowners leave behind.

Then, with the help of Gatsby, he meets Pilar Sanchez. She's a most unlikely object of desire for Miles: a burningly ambitious, bright, 17-year-old Cuban-American orphan being raised by her older sisters. But he falls hard, and so does she.

It's a brief idyll. A threat to their relationship sends Miles back to New York, leaving Pilar most of his money to live on until she turns 18 and can join him. With few resources, Miles agrees to join Bing's latest quasi-political project: a squatters' camp in an abandoned house in a forlorn swatch of Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

Although the inhabitants are all in their mid 20s, they seem like a sad version of kids playing house. Bing plays in an esoteric jazz band and runs the Hospital for Broken Things, a tiny shop devoted to repairing "all but vanished" objects such as manual typewriters, record players and rotary phones.

His two housemates are his childhood friend Ellen Brice, now a real estate agent and would-be artist, and her college roommate, Alice Bergstrom, a Columbia University grad student eking out a bare survival on fellowship money as she completes her dissertation. Both of them are, pretty justifiably, depressed. All of them know the city, which owns the house, could discover their presence and evict them any time.

Miles' arrival in the household prompts a degree of reinvention all around and also raises the question of whether he'll get back in touch with his parents. Morris is struggling to keep the press going as the publishing industry plunges into free fall; Mary-Lee is preparing for a return to Broadway in the unlikely role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days — a woman who spends the entire play half-buried, in yet another literary character note.

Auster often writes in experimental modes, but in Sunset Park his style is straightforwardly realistic, the book's structure built around chapters from the points of view of various characters. Several motifs link the sections, including baseball as a cultural touchstone (especially between Miles and Morris) and the classic post-World War II film The Best Years of Our Lives, another tale of reinvention gone awry that Alice is writing about (and obsessed with).

In that film, soldiers traumatized by battle try to readjust to the lives they left behind. Whether Miles can come home again — or should — is a question Auster explores with skill and compassion.

Sunset Park

By Paul Auster

Henry Holt, 309 pages, $25

Paul Auster's 'Sunset Park' is a novel of reinvention 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 3:30am]

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