As he hits his mid-60s, Paul Auster looks back at life, love and his Minnesota wife.
'Winter Journal" is a book about a man in old age's on-deck circle. Auster is 65, and at the start of what he calls the final season of his life, he's decided to look over his shoulder. This, predictably, takes to him to some dark places.
The author of many good novels and a couple of great ones, Auster discusses the deaths of his parents, his near-fatal car wreck and the end of his brief first marriage. He writes about "the realization as you look in the mirror this morning that all life is contingent, except for the one necessary fact that sooner or later it will come to an end." At times, his existential brooding is a bit much. But Auster's story is also suffused with reverence for moments of transcendent, poetic beauty, and these chapters are just about perfect.
An ardent baseball fan -- a fact he made plain in "The New York Trilogy," an inspired, offbeat series of 1980s cloak-and-dagger tales, and expanded upon in "Hand to Mouth," his 1997 collection of early work -- Auster says the sport shaped one of his happiest recollections. One day in the 1950s, he writes, his mother stepped to the plate in suburban New Jersey and belted a round-tripper in front of Auster and his fellow Cub Scouts. Decades later, he still sees her "running around the bases in her den mother's uniform and coming in to the plate with her home run -- out of breath, smiling, soaking up the cheers from the boys." It's a gorgeous image.
Just as appealing are the parts that deal with Auster's marriage to Siri Hustvedt, the accomplished writer who grew up in Northfield, Minn. Auster has lived in Brooklyn for many years, but he devotes a significant portion of "Winter Journal" to his wife's home state. His "favorite spot quickly became the Malt-O-Meal factory on Highway 19," Auster writes, "with its tall smokestacks pouring out white clouds of the nut-scented grain used in the recipe for that tawny, farina-textured breakfast cereal." It was there, he explains, "as a slowly moving train passed by," that he and Hustvedt began discussing whether they might spend their lives together.
There's also a fascinating element of Vietnam War-era social history to the book. Auster recalls protesting at Columbia University in 1968, a day that ended with him in jail. "In the next morning's edition of the Daily News, there was a photograph of you being dragged off to the paddy wagon," Auster writes in the second-person voice he uses throughout the book. "The caption read 'Stubborn Boy.'"
From a remove of many years, Auster is often surprised by his own actions, and wistful when thinking about his youthful boldness. Recalling a very public heavy-petting session that occurred during his teen years, he writes: "You would never do such a thing now, would not even dare to think of doing such a thing now -- but then again, you are no longer young."
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.