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Waking up from an American dream

24 November 2010

Richard Lamey on a credit-crunch tale

Sunset Park
Paul Auster

Faber & Faber £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

SUNSET PARK is the odyssey through contemporary America of Miles Heller, an eloquent and intel­lectual college dropout, aged 28, who works in Florida emptying out repossessed houses. The book ex­plores his ambivalence about whether to face up to past and family or continue rootless for ever, and the salvation he finds in his under-age girlfriend, Pilar.

The book is a stylish journey through a nation that has lost its confidence and its certainties. Heller and the people he befriends share a sense of the emptiness behind the American dream, and choose to live in a world of repossession and squat­ting, turning their back on Wall Street and academia.

You come to care about the crisis that led Heller to flee, and his falter­ing steps towards forgiveness. You also come to care for those who love him — the three people he shares a squat with, in Sunset Park; his father, struggling to save his busi­ness and his marriage; and Pilar, who gives Heller something to live for.

There are problems. Focusing on people who choose impoverishment is an odd way of telling the story of the United States after the sub-prime loan crisis. And there is a hint of unreality in the fact that everyone in Heller’s orbit is so talented. A world full of artists and writers, publishers and actresses, does not feel properly earthed.

Nevertheless, Auster is a pleasure to read. His almost-exclusive use of internal monologue, without dia­logue, is clever. He enjoys lists, and quirky images, and the line between fact and fiction is wonderfully fuzzy; real films and real baseball stars provide a backdrop to the story.

Satisfying rather than transcendent, Sunset Park succeeds in sketching a portrait of disillusionment in the US in 2009, and the timeless hope of redemption through love and constancy.

The Revd Richard Lamey is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Newton, Hyde, and Rural Dean of Mottram, Chester.

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