As the book opens, the character who is most central, Miles Heller, is working in Florida in a "trash-out" job. The year is 2008, the economy is in shambles, and Miles and his colleagues go from one vacant house to the next, removing the personal possessions so the house can be sold. While his less scrupulous workmates take items of value, Miles takes photographs of them.
Each house is a story of failure -- of bankruptcy and default, of debt and foreclosure -- and he has taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present int he discarded things strewn about their empty houses. The work is called trashing out...
Failure, regret, and economic and emotional depression are the themes that rule this novel. Miles, we learn, is a very intelligent man, having fled his family home in New York following the accidental death of his step-brother, for which he blames himself. In Florida, he has fallen in love with an exceptionally gifted teen-ager, Pilar. Miles, however, is not a paedophile -- he and Pilar met when he discovered her reading The Great Gatsby in a park, and their subsequent relationship, while not platonic, is as much about mentoring as it is about lust. Pilar's greedy older sister, however, threatens to turn Miles over to the law for statutory rape (the age of consent in Florida is 18) unless he showers her with stolen loot from the trash-outs, so Miles returns to New York to bide his time until Pilar's 18th birthday. Only a few months -- I felt as hopeful and confident as Miles that the time would fly, and they would be together. They seemed like one of the most intriguing and compatible couples I've run across in fiction in years. Why shouldn't it work?
In New York, Miles connects with his long-time friend, Bing Nathan, who invites Miles to become the fourth squatter in an abandoned, incongruous, wood-framed house in Sunset Park. From one side of the house they can see the Statue of Liberty (symbol of hope), and from the other the enormous Green-Wood Cemetery (land of no more hope). The four young house-mates are academic and artistic types. In earlier decades the idea that they would be squatting in an abandoned house might have seemed unthinkable, but times are grim now.
Alice is working on her PhD thesis, completing the chapter on the film The Best Years of Our Lives, the ironically titled classic about the miseries and struggles of GIs returning from World War II. In another section of the novel, Miles' father, Morris, watches the film on a trans-Atlantic flight.
He wound up watching The Best Years of Our Lives, something he had seen once a long time ago and therefore had utterly forgotten, a nice movie, he felt, well played by the actors, a charming piece of propaganda designed to persuade Americans that the soldiers returning from World War II will eventually adjust to civilian life, not without a few bumps along the way, of course, but in the end everything will work out, because this is America, and in America everything always works out.
Considering that Morris' small, boutique publishing house is on the verge of bankruptcy at the end of its worst year ever, and his Brown University-educated son is living as a squatter, the irony is lacerating.
Morris' ex-wife and Miles' mother is an actress, in New York at the moment to play the part of a woman buried up to her neck in sand in a Becket play, Happy Days. Morris reflects on her career with the same sense that America might not be holding up to its advertised promise.
...that was the world she came from, an ethical universe patched together from the righteous platitudes of Hollywood films -- pluck, spunk, and never say die. Admirable in its way, yes, but also maddening, and as the years moved forward he understood that much of it was a sham, that inside her supposedly indomitable spirit there was also fear and panic and crushing sadness.
The miasmic sense of doom spawned by the financial melt-down makes sense to me as a reader. What I find more puzzling are the personal senses of failure and defeat that seem to engulf both Miles and his father. Yes, there was the tragic death of Bobby, Miles' step-brother, which occurred when Miles shoved him, and Bobby tumbled into a country road only to be killed by a car that sped around a bend. This would be traumatic for any family, but neither Morris nor Willa, Miles' step-mother, blames Miles for Bobby's death. Morris consistently berates himself for having generally failed Miles; Miles just as consistently berates himself for having failed his family. And yet, when we look at the family that Auster has drawn for us, they are as close to ideal as reality will allow.
...he can remember actively liking his brother, perhaps even loving him, and that he was liked and perhaps even loved in return. But they were never close, not close in the way some brothers are, even fighting, antagonistic brothers, and no doubt that had something to do with the fact that they belonged to an artificial family, a constructed family, and each boy's deepest loyalty was reserved for his own parent. It wasn't that Willa had been a bad mother to him or that his father had been a bad father to Bobby. Quite the reverse. The two adults were steadfast allies, their marriage was solid and remarkably free of trouble, and each one bent over backward to give the other's kid every benefit of the doubt.
Following the story's sudden, violent climax, Miles concludes that the sun really has set on his life, on his hopes for any sort of worthwhile future, and he rattles out his despair in that one long, rambling final sentence. Here, too, Auster leaves me scratching my head, because although Miles' situation is far from rosy, I don't find it anywhere near as dire as he does. While Auster's telling of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire rings brilliantly true to me, his snap-shots of personal anguish and guilt don't add up. I can't understand why the people he has put in front of us are as tortured as he says they are.
This is a book I would like to read with a book group. I would love to know if, for examples, New Yorkers find the personal emotions more sensible, or if men do. In the meantime, thoughts of Miles and Morris will be popping into my head at odd times, I'm sure. Maybe I'll figure them out on my own.
P.S. Morris recalls the day when a very young Miles talks to him about To Kill a Mockingbird. The boy noted that in the novel, the falsely accused black man, the lawyer who tries to defend him, and the lawyer's son all suffer injuries to their right arms. Miles concludes that injury is a requisite step on the road to manhood, an inference that his publisher father admires greatly. Maybe when men don't suffer any real or catastrophic injuries on the road to manhood, they create them from whatever struggles life has given them. Just a thought, and not one, I think, that Mr. Auster or his publisher would admire greatly.