Reading a Paul Auster novel is something like listening to a well-orchestrated , multi-layered musical composition where certain melodies and motifs recur with substantial elaboration and variation. He is one of our very best writers and his newest, Sunset Park, like many of his books, reflects back to us a great deal about how we live today. It is “up-to-the-moment” current, the protagonist, Miles Heller, being employed by a South Florida realty company (for part of the novel) as a “trash-out” worker who cleans out repossessed homes that are usually left in awful shape by their former inhabitants. Miles has a somewhat fetishistic compulsion to photograph the forgotten possessions, the abandoned things that have been left behind, and his large collection of digital photos of these objects comprise one of the many lists of contemporary artifacts that Auster constructs throughout the book. It includes pictures of “books, shoes, and oil paintings, pianos and toasters, dolls, tea sets and dirty socks, televisions and board games, party dresses and tennis racquets, sofas, silk lingerie, caulking guns, thumbtacks, plastic action figures, tubes of lipstick, rifles, discolored mattresses, knives and forks, poker chips, a stamp collection, and a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”
Miles is 28 years old, and one day while sitting on the grass in a public park, reading normal"">The Great Gatsby (one of many iconic American cultural landmarks referenced in the book) he meets Pilar Sanchez, who happens to be reading the same novel. That bond connects them immediately, but there’s one hitch to that connection. Pilar, though lovely, smart, and irresistible, is seventeen years old. That doesn’t slow down Miles at all; he falls deeply in love with her. Both have experienced
deep tragedies in their lives; Miles’ older brother Bobby was accidently killed by a car when Miles
shoved him into the road while the two were walking together. Pilar’s parents were both killed in an
auto accident as well. She lives with her three sisters, one of whom tries to blackmail Miles into giving her some of the merchandise he gathers from repossessed houses. She threatens to
call the police and tell them he is committing statutory rape with her sister regularly.
The plot, as they say, thickens. Miles returns to the Sunset Park in Brooklyn where he lived some time
ago before becoming estranged from his father and stepmother. Because he is without a regular job and intends to return to Florida after Pilar turns eighteen, he moves in with some friends who are “squatting” in a condemned building in the area: Bing Nathan, Alice Bergstrom, Ellen Brice and Jake Baum, and the remainder of the book is about the intersecting relationships between these
five people, as well as Miles’ lingering resentments regarding his parents and stepmother. You will notice virtually all the characters have names that evoke various American figures, both fictional and real. And additional American motifs that touch down again and again in the book include Miles’ fascination with baseball lore, particularly Herb Score, the Cleveland Indian left hander whose career was shattered with Yankee shortsop Gil MacDougald hit a line drive that shattered multiple bones in his face, and Mark “the Bird” Fydrich, the Detroit Tiger 1976 Rookie of the Year pitcher who became famous for his virtually perpetual motion on the mound.
Then there are continuing references to a classic American film of the late 40s, The Best Years of our Lives, because one of Miles’ housemates, Alice, is writing a PhD dissertation on the film. The film’s ironic title and many of its remarkably delineated details, resonates as Miles and his friends struggle to live the “best years of their lives” in what are the worst years of the life of their country,
As another great novelist wrote in another great tale of two cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. While the novel’s ending seems hurried and somewhat inconclusive, you can chalk up another brilliant performance by Auster and you will not want to miss this book.