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Mr. Vertigo

Paul Auster
Viking $21.95

by Jeffrey Goldsmith

Madison Smartt Bell once questioned whether Paul Auster wanted really to be a philosopher or a novelist. Perhaps what gave Bell pause are the cerebral concerns and formal ingenuity that marked Auster's early work and first brought him recognition -- not in America, but in France, where he won the 1993 Prix Medicis Etranger. Auster's City of Glass (1985), for example, is a mystery in which the protagonist assumes the author's own identity and plays detective for clients who function also as philosophical questions. Its literary lineage begins with Poe, travels through Symbolism, Surrealism, Oulipo and the Noveau Roman, with dashes of Kafka and Beckett.
Since then, Auster has traversed enormous creative distance. Mark Twain and Frank Baum have joined the mix, and, in his latest novel -- Mr. Vertigo -- the familiar polemics of Chance, Coincidence, Identity have nearly disappeared. Not that the intellectual calculation -- Auster's trademark -- is gone. But ideas are now rooted in character, intellectualization in narration, a balance slowly mastered in work after work.

Mr. Vertigo opens with a black-clad Yehudi approaching grimy, nine-year-old Walt on the streets of 1927 St. Louis and offering to teach the urchin to fly. With some trepidation Walt goes off with Yehudi: he doesn't have much to lose by leaving behind his miserable life on the streets. Yehudi brings Walt to a bleak farm occupied by housekeeper Mother Sue (Sioux), ex-bareback showgirl of Buffalo Bill fame, and Aesop, a slave-child Master Yehudi saved and is now educating towards matriculation at Yale. The racial mix proves a bit too politically correct for Walt -- as it did for me -- who acts the part of the whitest of white trash. Walt wants out, tries to run away, but wherever he goes a smiling Master Yehudi has -- magically -- beaten him there, leaving Walt, and the reader, breathless.
In Yehudi's initiation of the boy, women, masturbation, brotherhood, racism, and death are dealt with in the most natural, sad, and amusing of ways -- not as mere ideas or devices. Walt is Peter Pan turned streetwise urchin; a levitating, urban, Huckleberry Finn, as compelling as any of these American icons. And we are Tom Sawyers who follow Walt out of various windows, into the scenes of a hard boiled tale. Moreover, Walt's masturbatory "tomfoolery" unsanitizes this fable, making the form a less contrived setting for Auster's larger concerns.
Walt's first flight coincides with Lindbergh's crossing the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, the city where Yehudi found Walt. Walt senses a connection between the events. It's as if Yehudi is the last of his kind, and Walt is the missing link with the modern world Lindbergh represents, a world sweeping all Yehudis -- and the human powers he symbolizes -- under the carpet. In Auster's vision the movement from older forms does not yield a sense of progress, but the feeling of falling: vertigo. Walt becomes a star, but his fame is short lived: when the stock market crashes in 1929, he is struck down with a rare illness afflicting only levitators and must give up his great power. Yehudi had dreamed of initiating Walt into the art of levitation; now that the magic is over, he guides the boy away from flight towards a greatness of the ordinary, an acceptance of the human condition. An icon of perseverance in the face of adversity, Yehudi says, "As soon as the wind is up, we'll lift anchor -- and with a heave and a ho we'll be off!" Though they are now anchored to Earth, that wind, aptly, carries the pair towards a mirage called Hollywood, which they never reach.
There's nostalgia in this for a time when Hollywood was really a city of dreams -- nostalgia for a time when America was naive, small-town, corrupt with the sort of gangster Walt becomes in the twisting thread of Auster's beloved theme, Chance. But this Chance is not a formal element, a freak accident like the erroneous phone call that begins City of Glass. It's an emotional response, true within the fiction, that causes Walt to take his revenge against chance and become a gangster. He then names his downtown Chicago club, "Mr. Vertigo." And it's true also to Walt's -- and America's -- vertiginously falling expectations that when Walt meets a failing baseball player at his club, and tries to play master as Yehudi once did for him, he finds that Mr. Vertigo is subject to gravity: Walt fails to find the Yehudi-like mentor within him. Yehudi is dead and Walt lets himself be sent off to be leveled by the equalizer, World War II. When the onetime star returns after the war to work in a bakery in Newark, we feel the naive America of Huck Finn and Dorothy being replaced by a suburbanization of Wichita replete with laundromats.
Still, the "past" is not lost. Walt, a 77-year-old living in 1994, tells his story in a redemptive narrative voice from the past -- idiom-forked, streetwise, American: "These rubes don't like no fancy stuff. They didn't take to your penguin suit, and they didn't take to my sissy robe. And all that high-flown talk you pitched them at the start -- it went right over their heads." Auster does not create a hard-edged verbal storyline as in earlier work, but builds a setting with the forgotten language of prewar Midwestern America, and it never falters. The America of Walt's youth has lost faith, but Walt still believes in the past. Belief is the heart of the fable, that anyone can fly. Only when Walt has reassured us that he still believes does he choose his own death, a choice allowed him by the ability to fly, an act he commits with the last words of Mr. Vertigo, words that show us how easily it's done: "Like so." 

Originally published in the October/November 1994 issue of Boston Review

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