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When you read Sunset Park by Paul Auster you get the sense of an older New York as described by an old guard New Yorker. New York before Harlem and Brooklyn gentrification, when struggling writers chatted with prodding editors over knishes at deli countertops. When the Dodgers played in Brooklyn and stats were catalogued in steel trap minds rather than fantasy league spreadsheets. Paul Auster seems to belong to this guard, along with the Phillip Roths and Martin Amises, or at least his characters inhabit the vestige of Golden Era New York. The setting of Sunset Park might be idealized nostalgia; the frailty of relationship certainly is not.
As a New York Times critic noted, Paul Auster breaks some fairly concrete rules of fiction. A protagonist described as a man devoid of longings or hopes usually does not portend to be very interesting and certainly not very engaging. What does a reader do with a character such as this? Where does one latch on, to find the personal resonance? Readers typically need a complex, perhaps flawed character to keep a story moving, to remain affixed with the plot and the momentum of the novel. While there are stretches of Sunset Park where not a lot seems to happening, little action to speak of, even less momentum; Auster’s strength lies in creating complex, messy characters. There is not a single character in Sunset Park who is not messy, richly nuanced, often times very flawed. They seek love or they seek vengeance and at times they seek both in equal measure. They make every attempt to come to terms with the changing, frustrating world around them or to make sense of their own selves. What Sunset Park lacks in steadily moving plot, it makes up for in rich character development.