Family dynamics in a time of change

  • Article by: KEVIN CANFIELD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2010 - 12:52 PM

A young man returns to New York City to face his estranged family.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Miles Heller has vanished into the shadows of this vast country. The conflicted young hero of Paul Auster's captivating "Sunset Park," he's little more than a phantom to the family and friends he's left behind.

But now, seven years after abruptly dropping out of college -- and more than a decade since he was involved in an accident that killed his stepbrother -- Miles finds himself back in New York City during a rare spell that will see both of his parents living in Manhattan. It is, Auster writes, a "terribly odd and incomprehensible" set of circumstances, "another lottery pick scooped out of the black metal urn, another fluke in a world of flukes and endless mayhem."

This is classic Auster, a writer whose thematic concerns are evoked in the title of his 1990 novel "The Music of Chance." Simply put, the prolific 63-year-old New Yorker is fascinated by coincidence. His characters are drawn into private eye work through happenstance ("City of Glass," part of his "New York Trilogy"); embark on studies of early Hollywood after stumbling across fleeting images on TV ("The Book of Illusions"); and discover themselves when strange people and strange texts cross their doorways and desks ("The Brooklyn Follies," "Travels in the Scriptorium," among others).

Miles isn't quite sure what to do about the twist of fate that has him sharing a city with his estranged family. Having left Florida in a hurry -- he's 28 and worried that authorities are about to learn that his girlfriend, Pilar, is underage -- Miles has moved in with a small group of squatters living in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood. His new home, Auster writes, is a "little two-story wooden house" that looks "for all the world like something that had been stolen from a farm on the Minnesota prairie and plunked down by accident in the middle of New York."

As other fascinating people pass through his orbit, Miles wrestles with a bunch of tough questions. Can he forge a relationship with the family he unceremoniously dumped? Why has he deliberately "turned himself into a black sheep"? What will become of him if his relationship with Pilar falters before he can propose on her 18th birthday?

Set in 2008, this rather small story is set against a backdrop that melds two larger concerns: the country's economic meltdown and the perceived decline of reading. As to the latter, Miles' father, the founder of a company that puts out small novels, wryly says he might write a book called "Forty Years in the Desert: Publishing Literature in a Country Where People Hate Books." The elder Heller may feel gloomy about the future of serious fiction, but writers like Auster give us reason to be optimistic.

Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.

  • SUNSET PARK

    By: Paul Auster.

    Publisher: Henry Holt, 308 pages, $25.

    Review: A typically captivating novel from a prolific New Yorker who sets stories of coincidence against sweeping social backdrop.

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