It can be easy to become disenchanted with an author who’s published enough not-terrific books in the decades since you got hip to his buzzed-about early work. That is, it’s hard to get hot for The Humbling if you picked up Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. But for young minds, for which established classics are still to be discovered, which are just experiencing City of Glass for the first time, a minor-seeming late novel like Sunset Park can become an event.
Or, such was the theory I was working on Thursday while waiting for the Paul Auster reading at Book Court to begin. As the clock approached the advertised starting-time and passed it, I noticed the SRO crowd of 60 or so—at least one of whom brought his own wine—was overwhelmingly in their 20s, just like the heroes of the just-published Sunset Park. Maybe there was a different lesson: write about your demographic, or who you want that demographic to be.
Anyway, in his introduction, Chad from Book Court (who would ignobly conclude the evening by accusing me of shoplifting on the sidewalk) called Auster a “good loyal friend” to the store—one who’d stopped-in over the store’s first weekend in September of 1981, back when Auster lived in Cobble Hill.
Auster wore a collared shirt poking out of a predictable sweater. His hair has gone gray, except for a strip of black that forms a border on his hairline edge, around the back from ear to ear, as though his aging began in the middle of his head and is working its way out. His voice is lispier in person than on audiobooks, radio or the telephone; it’s a voice whose deepness is at odds with its soft and loose edges, which is where the occasional bent vowel hints at a New York accent never fully formed.
He read from Sunset Park to a rapt audience, even though he began by saying “it’s too complicated to read from a novel,” especially one with rotating protagonists, melodramatic build-ups and twists. (He read choice snippets.) He didn’t offer much new insight except when he said, “the dates are very precise in the book”. (They are!?) The most fun was when he asked for a show of hands as to who had seen William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, discussed at length in the book, and a scant few lifted their arms, which he seemed to expect.
Before presumably rushing off, post-signing, to the Cobble Hill Sweet Melissa—in a deleted bit from our interview, Auster cited the Park Slope location as one of his favorite local haunts—there was one lovely scene when a trio of front-row listeners tried to sneak out during of the reading. “We’re losing the audience,” Auster said, giving them a public shaming (like the one Book Court would soon unfairly lay on me). “Why sit in the front row if you’re gonna leave?” To make you feel bad, a listener offered. Auster agreed, wryly adding, “life is already tough enough.”