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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sunset Park

Sunset Park
By Paul Auster
(4/5 stars)

Previously I had only read Auster's "Book of Illusions" and didn't really care for it.  But since this was free, I decided to give it a try.  For some reason I can't explain, I really liked the book and when I wasn't reading it, I wanted to be.

My best guess is because the focal character Miles Heller is near 30, a baseball fan, and had an annoying brother.  So we have some things in common there.  That usually helps to like someone, as various scientific studies have pointed out.  (Other studies probably say the opposite, but that's neither here nor there.)

When the book begins, Miles is living in Florida.  It's 2008, in the middle of housing bubble collapse and Wall Street collapse.  Miles works cleaning out houses of those who have been evicted from their homes.  The love Miles's life is a Cuban girl named Pilar, who is only 17, 11 years his junior.  Miles plans on marrying her once she turns eighteen.  Then Pilar's sister gets involved and Miles has to flee.  Unlike Humbert Humbert, he doesn't take his Lolita with him.

Instead, he goes alone to New York.  Specifically to Brooklyn and a house in the neighborhood known as Sunset Park.  A college chum and two of his friends are living there already, rent-free because the house belongs to the city after its former residents were evicted.  (Irony, anyone?)  So Miles and the others squat there for a few months, waiting for the police to lower the boom on them.

As much as I really wanted to like this book and give it five stars, I can't overlook the fatal flaw.  There are too many characters and too many things going on.  There are the four housemates, Miles's parents, and his stepparents, all of whom except Miles's stepparents get a turn at narrating.  With so much going on in a book that comes in at less than 350 pages, there just isn't time for Auster to deal with everything.  So it comes off as shallow, the characters, situations, and conversations as sketches instead of fully-formed. 

While I enjoyed Auster's writing, I think the story would have been vastly improved if he had just picked one or maybe two narrators (like Miles and his father) and focused on them.  That or make the book about 300 pages longer.  Because as it stands, while the housemates Bing, Alice, and Ellen are interesting, their potential is squandered.  Just as squandered are the interactions between the housemates during the squatting in Sunset Park.  Really you get more drama from an episode of "The Real World" or "Jersey Shore" or any "reality" show where people are cooped up together than you get from these four.

So in the end it's a good book and I really liked it, but it could have been a lot more.  While I liked it more than "The Book of Illusions" I doubt it's his best effort.

That is all.

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