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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Sunset Park’

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SUNSET PARK
By Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Co., $25 308 pages

Now comes, yet again, Paul Auster. To say he's prolific hardly does him justice. In less than three decades, Mr. Auster has written 15 novels (three in one, the well-known "New York Trilogy"), six works of nonfiction, one book of poems, three illustrated books, two collections of his own screenplays, one book of poetry, plus three nonfiction books he edited. Oh, and he directed four films, produced two and acted in two. He really should be much older than 63.

Given all this accomplishment, and the fact that he is much-loved in Europe and by many heavyweight critics (The New Yorker ran a long article about his fiction last year), as a postmodernist and an absurdist who uses alienation and angst as recurring themes, one might be surprised to learn he was born and raised in New Jersey and loves baseball. Still, after graduating from Columbia in 1970, Mr. Auster did decamp for France where he spent four years starting a small magazine and concentrating on poetry before turning to fiction, and eventually winning major literary honors in both that country and the United States.

One of Mr. Auster's recurrent themes is the conflict between father and son, or more simply parent and child, and the effect on all parties, familial and otherwise, of the loss of a loved one. Both of those elements are central to what happens in "Sunset Park."

Mr. Auster's protagonist, Miles Heller, is "twenty-eight years old and to the best of his knowledge he has no ambition." If that's not sufficiently angst-ful, then consider this. Miles works for a South Florida company that empties out the contents of bank-foreclosed houses. On each job, he takes pictures of "abandoned things." He's so far removed from the normality of the situation that, unlike his co-workers, he won't take any of the objects, some often valuable, that are left behind.

Then one day while sitting in a park reading "The Catcher in the Rye," Miles notices a beautiful young Hispanic girl, Pilar by name (thus channeling both Salinger and Hemingway simultaneously) who is reading the same book. Soon he becomes not just her Pygmalion but also her lover. Mr. Auster cares not that some of his plot lines and much of his dialogue are often cliched. As for coincidence, he loves it.

The plot having been set, the author wastes no time in thickening it. Pilar's only 17. Oh, oh. Her parents are dead and she lives with several sisters, the oldest of whom, Angela, is anything but angelic. Soon, Miles is taking the objects he'd been ignoring. Why? To give them to Angela so as to buy her approval - and keep her from blowing the whistle on what he and the underage Pilar are doing. When the greedy Angela insists on more loot, Miles resists, so she sends a couple of thugs to make her point, and Miles is forced to leave South Florida and his beloved Pilar.

The rest of the book is set in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in an abandoned house taken over by an unusual group of squatters, one of whom is Miles' childhood friend Bing. The idea is that Miles will hole up there, safe from Angela's goons, for three months until Pilar turns 18.

By this point, we have learned that Miles is no slacker. He's in a deep existential funk because he believes he caused the death of his younger brother many years earlier. Unable to come to grips with it, he split, and for seven years hasn't seen or contacted either of his parents. His only confidant has been his friend Bing.

What Miles doesn't know is that for all the time he's been gone, Bing has been letting his parents know his whereabouts. So, all these plot lines have to intersect, for well or ill, by the end of "Sunset Park." See if you like this sample, which ends with a typically Austerian twist. "For the first few weeks, they did what they could to make the rooms habitable, diligently attacking all manner of blight and decay, treating each small task as if it were a momentous human endeavor, and bit by bit they turned their wretchedly inadequate pigsty into something that might, with some generosity, be classified as a hovel."

If you prefer novelists who color within the lines, then Mr. Auster may not be for you, but if you value experimentation, genre-shifting and humor, and like writers who are, at their very core, storytellers, then read on.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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