Auster’s latest begins the way many of his novels do, with more emphasis on atmosphere and premise than on the characters living therein. Miles Heller has found work in south Florida ‘trashing out’ – on the bank’s dime, he forays into foreclosed homes and assesses the damage and detritus left behind.
But unlike so many of Auster’s novels, which live admirably in a sort of metaphysical space, the beginning of Sunset Park immediately grounds the story. Here we are dwelling in the wreckage of the 2008 housing crash, the main character assigned a vocation that says as much about him as the economy. Miles is pointedly adrift, having cut ties with his well-off and kind family. But at 28, he falls in love with… a 17-year-old, which he correctly predicts won’t end well. And when it doesn’t, he’s off to Brooklyn.
From there, Auster takes us into a gallery of lives squatting in Sunset Park. There’s artist Ellen, grad-student and writer Alice, and Bing, the loose cohort’s unstable glue. Auster has the chops to take on all of this, but there’s no doubt Miles steps out in front as not only the most fully formed character, but the one with the most at stake. He harbours a family secret that slowly eats away at him, while his father, the proprietor of a respected independent publishing house, hopes to repair their relationship without knowing the secret even exists.
All of this makes Sunset Park a remarkably different Auster novel, rooted in the present and concerned with the emotional lives of a swath of characters. It works because it’s Auster’s attempt to do psychology without the psychological games, and it’s still fun to play.