Book Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster


There must be two Paul Austers. There is the older Paul Auster who wrote The Brooklyn Follies, Man in the Dark, and Sunset Park–all of which I enjoyed. And then there is the younger Paul Auster who wrote with City of Glass (the first book in his New York Trilogy) which, at least in the first 30 pages, seemed to be some kind of absurdist crime story. Since I didn’t read beyond the first 30 pages of the trilogy there might be something I would like that I missed by quitting too soon. And I think I will pick it back up some day and read the whole thing–it isn’t very long. But the trilogy confirms why I didn’t pick up Auster for so many years. It comes off as one of those clever books written by a manly man guy’s guy that just don’t appeal to me. The Brooklyn Follies on the other hand–the first Auster I read–was a totally accessible and highly enjoyable relationship novel about an irascible older man wanting to just retire and eventually die in peace only to have his plans thwarted by the events and people around him. While Man in the Dark has absurdist qualities, I found it quite poignant and enjoyed it as well.

Published in 2010, Sunset Park definitely falls on the “accessible relationship book” end of the Paul Auster spectrum. The book centers around Miles Heller a 28-year old who has been trying to run from his family and his past for eight years. Because of the circumstances surrounding the death of his step-brother Miles drops out of college and moves around the country going from menial job to menial job never telling his family where he is or even letting them know that he is still alive. When the book opens Miles is working in Florida for a company that cleans out houses that have gone into foreclosure, setting the economic recession background of the story. Florida is one of the states that has been hardest hit by the housing meltdown and is synonymous in my mind with cheap, ticky tacky housing developments for people who care about the sun more than about any other factors that make up quality of life. New Yorker Miles, like me, isn’t so enamoured:

…there is no question that he has had his fill of the Florida sun–which, after much study, he now believes does the soul more harm than good. It is a Machiavellian sun in his opinion, a hypocritical sun, and the light it generates does not illuminate things but obscures them–blinding you with its blasts of vaporous humidity, destabilizing you with its miragelike reflections and shimmering waves of nothingness. It is all glitter and dazzle, but it offers no substance, no tranquillity, no respite.

Although Auster was 63 when he wrote this book I think he does an excellent job tapping into the mind of a 20-something–or at least what I remember of those days from my 42-year old perch. In many ways Miles, having run away from his life at age 20 is still kind of stuck there. But there is something wonderful and free about his transient life and his menial jobs. Would I want to go back to that kind of student-like subsistence? No. But Auster did evoke a rush of romantic nostalgia in me as I thought back to those days when I had so little to lose in the way of material comfort that I could remain unbeholden to any particular job or living situation. When my personal responsibilities had a very short time horizon and the future seem endlessly open. However, the lure of youthful potential is not enough to make me want to uproot my life for the sake of freedom.  And of course, adult jobs provide adult resources that in turn make many things possible unthinkable to 20-year old me.

Auster manages to include more than a few erotic adventures without making them seem like the wistful thinking of a wistful 63-year old author. One of my big problems with Sophie’s Choice was that the sex scenes seemed like gratuitous masturbatory fodder for author Styron. Auster’s adventures have a kind of pan-sexual quality to them that make them feel as relevant to the story as they titillating.

Miles is reunited with his family but the outcome is anything but pat. Auster leaves the reader with more than a few questions unanswered and with a worry that things might not work out for Miles.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

  1. Frances December 4, 2011 / 1:32 pm

    I did not connect with this one in the same way as some others from him I read last year but it could have been my mood. Did feel as you do that he successfully channeled the mind of a 20 something and Auster is always skillful writing about sex, but the level of disconnect for the protagonist here left me feeling a bit out of sorts.


  2. JoAnn December 4, 2011 / 3:15 pm

    Auster has been on my 'authors to read' list for years. Sounds like I should start here, or possibly with The Brooklyn Follies.


  3. Sara C December 5, 2011 / 10:21 am

    That passage about the sun is one of my favorites from this book as well. Like Frances, I didn't totally connect with this one (my first Auster), but it left me wanting more of his work, so it must have done something right.


  4. Thomas at My Porch December 5, 2011 / 11:50 pm

    Frances: I can't say that I really connected with Miles either. There were aspects about him that I liked but overall wished he would have pulled it together.

    JoAnn: I would (and did) start with The Brooklyn Follies. Of the three I have read it is he most accessible–and enjoyable.

    Sara: I don't quite get snowbirds. I like a little overcast and cold.


  5. Ti December 6, 2011 / 12:53 pm

    When I was in my twenties, I was living on my own, working full-time and going to school at night so I couldn't relate to Miles on that level, but I had moments in my life where I just wanted to abandon it all and become someone else. On that note, Miles and I had a lot in common.

    I was wanting a resolution at the end but of course, it never came. I think there was hope in the last paragraph though and I like to think that Miles turned out okay but you can take that last line and come out with a negative outcome as well.


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