Say this for Kate Christensen's new novel The Astral: if nothing else, it's a good antidote to Brooklyn nostalgia. No doubt there's a certain allure to the borough's hardscrabble, pre-hoodie days, but if living then would have meant hanging out with the likes of Harry Quirk and his friends, well, frankly, I'd just as soon not.
Harry is the book's hero, or perhaps anti-hero, depending on your disposition toward aging bohemians with borderline drinking problems. A once modestly successful poet since fallen into obscurity, he is, as the story begins, living in a Greenpoint flophouse, having been tossed by his wife Luz from their apartment in the neighborhood's Astral building after she found poems that he'd written addressed to other women, mistaking them for evidence of an affair. Given that the women in the poems are all fictional, this doesn't seem entirely reasonable, but then Luz, as Harry frequently reminds us, isn't really the reasonable sort.
Rather, she's a hot-blooded Latina with a mean Catholic streak who can a hold a grudge like nobody's business. In other words, like most all of the book's characters, she's something of a cliché. Along with Luz we get, for instance: drunken, violent Poles; shady, insular Hasids; a crusty salt-of-the-earth bartender; an indie sell-out turned foodie douchebag. The Astral is ostensibly the story of Harry getting his groove back—coming to terms with his wife, their marriage, himself and certain increasingly hard-to-maintain illusions—but Christensen actually seems most interested in capturing current hipster Brooklyn in all its absurd, kinetic glory. It's a worthy task; it's an interesting place. Unfortunately, what she comes up with is less a great New York novel than a cardboard menagerie of familiar borough types.
It doesn't help that Harry is kind of a dope. The narrative, as it's structured, flows through him, the story arriving filtered through his memories and prejudices and misconceptions. Occasionally (and particularly in one scene where he confronts Luz's therapist), this makes for an interesting exploration of the ways in which couples misunderstand and deceive each other over the course of a relationship. Despite his training as a poet, though, Harry isn't exactly a font of emotional insights, and more often than not we're treated instead to drab, metaphor-laden monologues like this:
"When I really fucked up, after my peccadillo with Samantha, Luz knocked me off my pedestal and turned the klieg lights of her ice-cold gaze onto every bit of evidence, any minuscule contradiction or microscopic disparity she could uncover, building her case to prove that I was a lying, cheating worm...Luz had split me open with her fascistic scimitar, then she'd flayed me with the wet noodles of my own guilt."
To be fair, it isn't all this bad (although, on the other hand, much of it is). Christensen has a nice understanding of the pathologies of the male mind, and several episodes involving Harry's son and a Long Island cult are an enjoyable break from the otherwise steady parade of stock Brooklyn characters. Nonetheless, 300 pages of Harry is plenty. That Luz lasted 30 years with the guy is a minor miracle.