With her lead character’s name–Harry Quirk–Kate Christensen hands you a road map to her lovely, hilarious, and yeah, OK, quirky new novel, The Astral. We meet Harry at age 57, just as his wife, Luz, has thrown him out for an affair it turns out he’s not having. Harry’s a poet, and Luz has decided that his latest manuscript is actually a series of love letters to their mutual friend of many years, Marion. Luz confronts Harry, ignores his protests, shreds his newest poems–the only copies he has–and sends him packing.
Harry leaves The Astral, the north Brooklyn apartment building he and Luz have occupied their entire married life, and moves to an SRO flophouse a few blocks away. Broke and brokenhearted, he’s at loose ends. He flirts with a Polish girl at a donut shop, gets beat up by her boyfriend, fights back, and winds up in jail. He uses his one phone call to tell Marion, who bails him out and brings him home.
The beating and its aftermath are the start of a leisurely migration in an equally leisurely novel. Instead of bothering too much with plot, Christensen takes her time with The Astral. She mines Harry’s smallest moments for illuminating backstory and revealing detail. Here’s Harry, thinking about the charms and mysteries of Polish girls just seconds before having his nose broken.
Polish girls managed to ooze and withhold sex simultaneously. They dressed for Mass and the grocery store alike in slippery little cleavagey minidresses, sheer hose, and stilettos. They smelled of some pheromonal perfume only they seemed to have access to. Their bodies were at once soft and tight, breasty and rumpy but willow-waisted and slender-armed and long-legged, like some idealized dolls.
That Harry has a gay daughter, Karina, a 25-year-old Freegan who eats and dresses and decorates with the world’s castoffs, is both germane and incidental to the book. She takes her father into her home at a certain point in his wanderings, and, like Harry’s, your respect and liking for her grows. Ditto for the fact that Harry lands a job, as an accountant, of all things, at a Hasidic lumber business. There’s some trauma and drama and more than a few laughs, but none of it turns out to be the point.
And then there’s Harry’s son, Hector. He’s a socially awkward boy who, at 27, has found his true purpose in a Christian cult on Long Island. The cult’s members think Hector may be the Messiah. He’s about to get engaged to the cult leader, a sexy Anthropologie-shopping sharpie at least twenty years his senior. Hector gives Harry and Karina someplace to go and something to do but, more important, he gives Christensen yet another landscape to explore, another cast of characters to parse.
Harry is presented as the bard in the book, but it’s Christensen who lays claim to that territory. Unlike Harry, who sticks to (and is mired in) the sonnet’s strict form, Christensen’s verse is part and parcel of her prose. From the precision with which she dissects her characters’ foibles to the Brooklyn landscapes she brings to vivid life, Christensen’s meditation on marriage is viewed through a poet’s eye, and tempered at times with a satirist’s soul.