Running parallel to Miles’ story are a number of narratives. Miles has abandoned his family in the wake of a tragedy in which is stepbrother died, and for which Miles blames himself, but Miles’ father, Morris, has been keeping tabs on Miles throughout the years via the updates he receives from Bing Nathan. The owner of a small publishing house, Morris is going through an upheaval of his own, as his marriage to his second wife, Willa, appears to have hit the rocks due to a one-off infidelity by Morris. Meanwhile, the economic climate is crushing down hard on his publishing business, leaving Morris, though determined to continue, fearful for his future.
Miles’ mother, Mary-Lee, a Hollywood actress, is another major character. Aging now, she has learned to play character roles, and has come to New York to play Winnie in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Mary-Lee abandoned both Morris and Miles shortly after her son was born, leaving New York for LA in the hope of building an acting career.
A number of minor characters populate the squat at Sunset Park. Apart from Bing Nathan, a ‘bear’ of a man who runs a quirky business repairing old typewriters and old-fashioned technology, and has a sideline as a jazz musician, there is Alice and Ellen, both of whom have artistic ambitions.
SUNSET PARK is a hugely enjoyable meditation on love, absence and loss. While Auster addresses big themes, however, he does so in a way that is modest and subtle, allowing the characters to grow by increments until they have wormed their way into the reader’s consciousness. There are few grand gestures here.
The novel touches on many recurring themes in Auster’s fiction. While the meta-fiction aspects for which he is famous are largely absent, the novel is strongest when exploring the father-son relationship between Morris and Miles. While Auster tends to write more often about absent fathers, here it’s the son who is absent from his family’s life, having exiled himself after accidentally contributing to the death of his stepbrother, Bobby, as a teenager.
Miles is a fascinating character, and has the ascetic qualities Auster tends to repeat in his male protagonists. Miles lives very sparely, with few indulgences or personal belongings. He is disgusted, for example, when Pilar’s older sister attempts to blackmail him in the hope that Miles will steal objects from the houses he trashes out:
“ … and even if it was all to a good purpose, he couldn’t help feeling revolted by her avidity, her inexhaustible craving for those ugly, stupid things.”By the same token, Miles is a little too ascetic, a little too much the strong, silent hero for the reader to take him entirely seriously. According to Bing Nathan,
“ … Miles seemed different from everyone else, to possess some magnetic, animal force that changed the atmosphere whenever he walked into a room. Was it the power of his silences that made him attact so much attention, the mysterious, closed-in nature of his personality that turned him into a kind of mirror for others to project themselves onto, the eerie sense that he was there and not there at the same time?”You can only presume that Auster is mocking himself, or Miles, or both, with a depiction of a contemporary character such as that, as if Miles has walked into Brooklyn straight off the set of the cowboy movie Shane.
That said, Auster devotes quite a bit of the novel to legendary baseball players - Miles and his father bond over the game of baseball - and mostly baseball pitchers, those men who stand on the mound on their own, the gunslingers who hurl their fastballs and dictate the narrative of the game.
It’s not necessarily an exercise in nostalgia for a better time, for a cleaner cut hero, however. Most of the baseball players Miles is drawn to are defined by their luck. For the most part, they are defined by bad luck, by accidents or bad plays that subsequently defined their careers, but he also references players who are known for their good luck, such as Lucky Lohrke, who cheated death three times before dying peacefully at the age of 85. Here Auster is invoking blind fate, the extent to which the tiniest details can blow up into catastrophic consequences. Such is the case, certainly, with the finale of the novel.
Auster also frequently cites the movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, a film made in the wake of WWII to illustrate the difficulty that GIs had in returning to a non-combat life. The title is an ironic one, especially as the ‘best years’ of the title refers to the killing fields of WWII Europe, or the Pacific theatre of war. Again and again, too often perhaps, he has various characters reference the movie, and the baseball heroes, to illustrate the vast gulf between reality and our perception of it.
Morris is the most fascinating character in the novel for me, a man old enough to have acquired wisdom but still young enough to put it to good use. There’s a real tang of authenticity when it comes to Morris’ character that seems absent when Auster is writing about Miles, and particularly in terms of Morris’ relationships with his wife, his ex-wife and his friends, most of whom are in the publishing business. The scene in which Miles and his father are finally reunited after seven years is arguably the finest in the novel, when neither, despite their best intentions, can rise to the occasion. It’s not very dramatic, certainly, but it’s heartbreaking in its poignancy, in the inability of both men to reach beyond their limited capacity for emotional engagement.
Mary-Lee, too, is a well drawn character, both self-centred but sympathetic, and Auster has terrific fun with her playing the role of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Mary-Lee’s tragedy, in fact, appears to be that she cannot stop performing; even when she is reunited with Miles after so many years apart, she finds herself wondering how he is evaluating her, as if he were an audience like any other. Again, this has the ring of authenticity, and represents a perversely touching moment.
Quietly told, without recourse to Auster’s usual brand of literary pyrotechnics such as meta-fiction or inter-textual fun and games, SUNSET PARK is a real grower of a novel. Set in a contemporary America that in which ordinary people are suffering badly due to the economic downturn, it offers a pleasing sense of cautious optimism that, when the chips are down, people still can turn to one another for assistance, be it financial, social or emotional help. The ending is downbeat and somewhat fatalistic, certainly, given Miles’ predicament, but Auster does a fine job of contextualising that predicament, framing it with understated grace notes of hope and expectation. - Declan Burke