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In his late 20s and early 30s, Paul Auster was down on his luck. His career as a novelist had yet to take off. He was married, he had children, and he was forced to scrape to survive. (Auster moonlighted as a translator and screenwriter, among other things.) There's nothing surprising about any of this -- few are the young novelists who don't experience lean times. What is surprising about Hand to Mouth, Auster's new memoir about his hungry years, is how smug and self-aggrandizing he is about his suffering. Hand to Mouth isn't merely the least winsome book Auster has written. It's among the least winsome literary memoirs in recent years.
Auster grew up middle-class in the Jersey 'burbs, then clawed his way to Columbia University, where he was dumbstruck by the realization that "Art was holy." Auster developed a distaste for the kind of literary hackwork that keeps many young writers alive, so he set off for what he calls "blue-collar" adventure -- working on tanker ships, loitering in European capitals. One problem with Hand to Mouth is the way Auster over-dramatizes these events. His time on that oil tanker takes up a heap of space in this book, for example, but in fact he worked on it for only a few months. Later, as a young married, he moans about the "constant, grinding, almost suffocating lack of money that poisoned my soul and kept me in a state of never-ending panic." He ululates as if he'd been born an untouchable on Calcutta's mean streets; in reality, he's just another struggling writer who's behind on a few bills. (In the South, they call this poor-mouthing.) Worse is Auster's narcissism about his artistic purity. "We weren't rich kids who could depend on handouts from our parents," he says about his writer-friends at Columbia, "and once we left college, we would be out on our own for good. We were all facing the same situation, we all knew the score, and yet they acted in one way and I acted in another. That's what I'm still at a loss to explain. Why did my friends act so prudently, and why was I so reckless?" To put this another way, he is asking: Why did my friends all sell out and become orthodontists, while I stuck to my guns and became a brooding international lit-world sex symbol?
Hand to Mouth exaggerates some of Auster's other weaknesses. As a stylist, he has always been suave yet sluggish; he's an impassive arranger of minor chords. Auster needs a strong story to tell in order to be a compelling presence on the page. His earlier memoir, The Invention of Solitude, which reads like a work of detection, tells such a story -- Auster pries into not just his father's psyche but a 60-year-old family murder mystery as well. Hand to Mouth finds him simply floundering.
As if to make up for this thin, underwhelming slice of memoir, Auster pads the book with examples of his juvenalia, items that the book's publicity copy warns are "three of the longest footnotes in literary history." Here's what these "footnotes" actually consist of: a mystery novel that the young Auster published under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin; a series of plays; and a card game he invented called "Action Baseball." None of these recycled items reward serious attention; even the Auster groupies who wade through them are likely to wind up scratching their noggins. Hand to Mouth makes you want to put your hands to your eyes. -- Salon