Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Paul Auster heads south to 'Sunset Park'

By Meredith Deliso

Brooklyn has its hold on Paul Auster.

The New York-centric writer has a habit for setting his stories in the borough, including his 1995 movie, “Smoke,” set in a Park Slope candy store, and his earlier novel, “Brooklyn Follies,” also set in Park Slope, among a cast of familiar characters (BPMs, anyone?).

In his newest novel, Auster moves a bit farther south. “Sunset Park” follows a group of young squatters — a musician, artist, grad student and somewhat lost but enigmatic individual, Miles Heller — who hole up in an abandoned building during the early onset of the recession. 

This wouldn’t be an Auster novel without contemplations of failure, chance, loneliness, coincidence (in this case, all the characters’ familiarity with the early Hollywood film, “The Best Years of Our Lives”), and, naturally, place.

“I was thinking about the idea of dispossession. I had an image in my head of someone being thrown out of the place where he lives, just kicked out on the street,” said Auster. “As I was thinking about the story, I picked up my head and looked around, and low and behold, all across America, people are being booted out of their house because of mortgage foreclosure.”

Auster only had to pick up his head again and look around to find further inspiration, this time for the house his characters made their impermanent home.

“I took a lot of walks around Sunset Park, and one day, I came across this odd little wooden structure, facing Green-Wood Cemetery, on a very deserted block. I thought, this is just the kind of place people could try to get into and squat in,” said Auster. “And it would be the kind of neighborhood where I think something like this would be possible. It’s a rather spread out, downtrodden part of Brooklyn. That house for me was the center of the book, and I just love the words — ‘Sunset Park’ — they’re very evocative to me.”

Auster took a few pictures of the building for reference while he wrote his book — which was a good thing, as it has since been torn down — and describes it thusly: “a dopey little two-story wooden house with a roofed-over front porch, looking for all the world like something that had been stolen from a farm on the Minnesota prairie and plunked down by accident in the middle of New York.” 

For the past 25 years, Auster has lived not far from Sunset Park, in Park Slope (“That would not be a place to squat,” he says. “You couldn’t get away with it there”). He’s called Brooklyn home for even longer, moving around from Carroll Gardens to Cobble Hill, not far from where he’ll read tomorrow, at BookCourt.

“Henry [Zook] had just started BookCourt when I lived in Cobble Hill,” said Auster. “It’s wonderful to see how it’s expanded over the years, and how he’s turned it into one of the best bookstores in the city.”

Similarly, over the years, Auster has become recognized as one of the foremost writers in the city, thanks to the strength of “The New York Trilogy” and the absurdist “Moon Palace.”

“Sunset Park,” though it uses a more straightforward form than his more classic works that play with form, is sure to please the Auster fan, thanks to compelling, fully realized characters that you wind up caring about — well, enough to spend 300 pages with. And, for those who also like the writer’s keen observations of Brooklyn, it probably won’t be his last borough-centric piece, either.

“I’ve been living here for so long, it’s my place now. I know it better than anywhere else,” said Auster. “I don’t have any plans to move anywhere else. My wife and I say, we’ll stay in our house until the day we can no longer get up and down the stairs.”

Paul Auster at BookCourt [163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean streets in Cobble Hill, (718) 875-3677], Nov. 18 at 7 pm. Free. For info, visit


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