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Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure

Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure

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by Paul Auster
     
 

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This is the story of a young man's struggle to stay afloat. By turns poignant and comic, Paul Auster's memoir is essentially an autobiographical essay about money--and what it means not to have it. From one odd job to the next, from one failed scheme to another, Auster investigates his own stubborn compulsion to make art and describes his ingenious, often

Overview

This is the story of a young man's struggle to stay afloat. By turns poignant and comic, Paul Auster's memoir is essentially an autobiographical essay about money--and what it means not to have it. From one odd job to the next, from one failed scheme to another, Auster investigates his own stubborn compulsion to make art and describes his ingenious, often far-fetched attempts to survive on next to nothing. From the streets of New York City and Paris to the rural roads of upstate New York, the author treats us to a series of remarkable adventures and unforgettable encounters and, in several elaborate appixes, to previously unknown work from these years.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner

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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Auster, the highly talented novelist (New York Trilogy), poet and filmmaker (Smoke) was not always as successful as he is now, and the title section of this oddly conceived book (most of which is comprised of Auster's unpublished work) is a penetrating memoir of a young writer desperately trying to make his way. Seldom has the helpless obsession, utter marginality and crushing poverty of the unsuccessful author been better conveyed than here; even the work Auster did purely for the money, forsaking his literary ambitions, didn't come off, and the memoir ends with recognition nowhere in sight. The rest of the volume, made up of what the publisher coyly calls "three of the longest footnotes in literary history," shows us some of the material that failed. There are three short plays (the kind that get staged at off-off-Broadway theaters); an ingenious card game that simulates baseball (an Auster passion), which, surprisingly, has never been marketed; and a brief but absorbing private-eye novel, "Squeeze Play". As Auster justly remarks, "As an example of the genre, it seemed no worse than many others I had read, much better than some." It is a noirish tale of the death of a baseball idol with a strange obsession, and apart from some heavy-handed flip dialogue and rote violence, it broods along stylishly enough. (The novel was ultimately published by Avon, netting Auster a sum in the high three figures.) As a cautionary tale for writers, this is a superb book; as an addition to an oeuvre, it's on the slight side. Author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Coming upon this "chronicle of early failure," readers of translator, poet, screenwriter, and novelist Auster (Mr. Vertigo, LJ 6/15/94) may be charmed by his new publisher's presentation though left puzzled by the derivative offerings. The work consists of one original, down-beat essay, "Hand to Mouth," a flat record of Auster's inauspicious early years struggling to make money while writing (the essay was recently excerpted in Granta), and three appendixes: a medley of Beckett-inspired plays, an "action baseball" card game that Auster was convinced would make his fortune, and a Chandleresque detective novel, "Squeeze Play"all of which failed in one way or another when first created. Auster's collection of essays and reviews, "The Art of Hunger" (Sun & Moon, 1991), develop more fully and satisfactorily the author's literary development, while the appendixes here will interest few but devoted literary archivists. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/97.]Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Artistic failure, financial woes, and broken love are the subjects of Auster's wide-ranging philosophical memoir, a candid assessment of the demands and rewards of art, work, and money. Auster's (Mr. Vertigo, 1994; Leviathan, 1992; etc.) success provides an ironic subtext to this catalog of misery: The author of 14 books of fiction, poetry, essays, screenplays, and translations laughs last, since this putative chronicle of failure includes work that originally lacked an audience. That material, presented in three appendixes, includes a trio of one-act plays (one of which, Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, isn't bad); Action Baseball, a nifty game complete with cut-out playing cards that failed as a desperate get-rich-quick scheme; and "Squeeze Play", a thinking man's mystery featuring a wise-cracking Ivy League gumshoe. All provide interesting footnotes to Auster's development as a novelist. The main attraction, though, is the long title essay, a bare-knuckles grapple with the choices he made during a rocky literary apprenticeship. The central problem, Auster writes, "was that I had no interest in leading a double life" like writers who "earn good money at legitimate professions" and write in their spare time. He took the old-fashioned approach, eschewing MFA programs (both as a student and teacher) to earn his chops in the school of hard knocks. He shipped out with the merchant marine, explored France and Ireland, won a few minor grants. But despite help from friends like Mary McCarthy (whose influence led to a memorable freelance gig translating a new Vietnamese constitution in 1973), Auster spent years of penury doing "literary hackwork" while his fiction wentnowhere and his marriage foundered. Even an attempt to sell out ended with his publisher kaput and a detective novel languishing in a warehouse. Risk and failure—common themes in Auster's work—gain real- life urgency as autobiography. Required, inspiring reading for Auster-holics and aspiring writers.

From the Publisher
"Delightful ... a gracious and humane tale ... one can only marvel at Auster's artistry:"—The Boston Globe

"Entertaining and instructive to anyone considering a literary life. You realize you're in the hands of someone who couldn't write down, even if he wanted to."—The Washington Post Book World

"Paul Auster's engaging account of his early economic struggles ... with a colorful east of sharply etched characters."—Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781466817647
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
08/01/2003
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
164
File size:
148 KB

Read an Excerpt

In my late twenties and early thirties, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. My marriage ended in divorce, my work as a writer foundered, and I was overwhelmed by money problems. I'm not just talking about an occasional shortfall or some periodic belt tightenings--but a constant, grinding, almost suffocating lack of money that poisoned my soul and kept me in a state of never-ending panic.

There was no one to blame but myself. My relationship to money had always been flawed, enigmatic, full of contradictory impulses, and now I was paying the price for refusing to take a clear-cut stand on the matter. All along, my only ambition had been to write. I had known that as early as sixteen or seventeen years old, and I had never deluded myself into thinking I could make a living at it. Becoming a writer is not a "career decision" like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days. Unless you turn out to be a favorite of the gods (and woe to the man who banks on that), your work will never bring in enough to support you, and if you mean to have a roof over your head and not starve to death, you must resign yourself to doing other work to pay the bills. I understood all that, I was prepared for it, I had no complaints. In that respect, I was immensely lucky. I didn't particularly want anything in the way of material goods, and the prospect of being poor didn't frighten me. All I wanted was a chance to do the work I felt I had it in me to do.

Most writers lead double lives. They earn good money at legitimate professions and carve out time for their writing as best they can: early in the morning, late at night, weekends, vacations. William Carlos Williams and Louis-Ferdinand Celine were doctors. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company. T. S. Eliot was a banker, then a publisher. Among my own acquaintances, the French poet Jacques Dupin is co-director of an art gallery in Paris. William Bronk, the American poet, managed his family's coal and lumber business in upstate New York for over forty years. Don DeLillo, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Elmore Leonard all worked for long stretches in advertising. Other writers teach. That is probably the most common solution today, and with every major university and Podunk college offering so-called creative writing courses, novelists and poets are continually scratching and scrambling to land themselves a spot. Who can blame them? The salaries might not be big, but the work is steady and the hours are good.

My problem was that I had no interest in leading a double life. It's not that I wasn't willing to work, but the idea of punching a clock at some nine-to-five job left me cold, utterly devoid of enthusiasm. I was in my early twenties, and I felt too young to settle down, too full of other plans to waste my time earning more money than I either wanted or needed. As far as finances went, I just wanted to get by. Life was cheap in those days, and with no responsibility for anyone but myself, I figured I could scrape along on an annual income of roughly three thousand dollars.

I tried graduate school for a year, but that was only because Columbia offered me a tuition-free fellowship with a two-thousand-dollar stipend--which meant that I was actually paid to study. Even under those ideal conditions, I quickly understood that I wanted no part of it. I had had enough of school, and the prospect of spending another five or six years as a student struck me as a fate worse than death. I didn't want to talk about books anymore, I wanted to write them. Just on principle, it felt wrong to me for a writer to hide out in a university, to surround himself with too many like-minded people, to get too comfortable. The risk was complacency, and once that happens to a writer, he's as good as lost.

I'm not going to defend the choices I made. If they weren't practical, the truth was that I didn't want to be practical. What I wanted were new experiences. I wanted to go out into the world and test myself, to move from this to that, to explore as much as I could. As long as I kept my eyes open, I figured that whatever happened to me would be useful, would teach me things I had never known before. If this sounds like a rather old-fashioned approach, perhaps it was. Young writer bids farewell to family and friends and sets out for points unknown to discover what he's made of. For better or worse, I doubt that any other approach would have suited me. I had energy, a head crammed full of ideas, and itchy feet. Given how big the world was, the last thing I wanted was to play it safe.

It's not difficult for me to describe these things and to remember how I felt about them. The trouble begins only when I question why I did them and why I felt what I felt. All the other young poets and writers in my class were making sensible decisions about their futures. We weren't rich kids who could depend on handouts from our parents, 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?

I came from a middle-class family. My childhood was comfortable, and I never suffered from any of the wants and deprivations that plague most of the human beings who live on this earth. I never went hungry, I never was cold, I never felt in danger of losing any of the things I had. Security was a given, and yet for all the ease and good fortune in the household, money was a subject of continual conversation and worry. Both of my parents had lived through the Depression, and neither one had fully recovered from those hard times. Each had been marked by the experience of not having enough, and each bore the wound in a different way.

My father was tight; my mother was extravagant. She spent; he didn't. The memory of poverty had not loosened its hold on his spirit, and even though his circumstances had changed, he could never quite bring himself to believe it. She, on the other hand, took great pleasure in those altered circumstances. She enjoyed the rituals of consumerism, and like so many Americans before her and since, she cultivated shopping as a means of self-expression, at times raising it to the level of an art form. To enter a store was to engage in an alchemical process that imbued the cash register with magical, transformative properties. Inexpressible desires, intangible needs, and unarticulated longings all passed through the money box and came out as real things, palpable objects you could hold in your hand. My mother never tired of reenacting this miracle, and the bills that resulted became a bone of contention between her and my father. She felt that we could afford them; he didn't. Two styles, two worldviews, two moral philosophies were in eternal conflict with each other, and in the end it broke their marriage apart. Money was the fault line, and it became the single, overpowering source of dispute between them. The tragedy was that they were both good people--attentive, honest, hardworking--and aside from that one ferocious battleground, they seemed to get along rather well. For the life of me I could never understand how such a relatively unimportant issue could cause so much trouble between them. But money, of course, is never just money. It's always something else, and it's always something more, and it always has the last word.

As a small boy, I was caught in the middle of this ideological war. My mother would take me shopping for clothes, sweeping me up in the whirlwind of her enthusiasm and generosity, and again and again I would allow myself to be talked into wanting the things she offered me--always more than I was expecting, always more than I thought I needed. It was impossible to resist, impossible not to enjoy how the clerks doted on her and hopped to her commands, impossible not to be carried away by the power of her performance. My happiness was always mixed with a large dose of anxiety, however, since I knew exactly what my father was going to say when he got the bill. And the fact was that he always said it. The inevitable outburst would come, and almost inevitably the matter would be resolved with my father declaring that the next time I needed something, he was the one who would take me shopping. So the moment would roll around to buy me a new winter jacket, say, or a new pair of shoes, and one night after dinner my father and I would drive off to a discount store located on a highway somewhere in the New Jersey darkness. I remember the glare of fluorescent lights in those places, the cinder-block walls, the endless racks of cheap men's clothing. As the jingle on the radio put it: "Robert Hall this season / Will tell you the reason--/ Low overhead / Bum, bum, bum / Low overhead!" When all is said and done, that song is as much a part of my childhood as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord's Prayer.

The truth was that I enjoyed this bargain hunting with my father as much as I enjoyed the buying sprees orchestrated by my mother. My loyalties were equally divided between my two parents, and there was never any question of pitching my tent in one camp or the other. My mother's approach was more appealing, perhaps, at least in terms of the fun and excitement it generated, but there was something about my father's stubbornness that gripped me as well, a sense of hard-won experience and knowledge at the core of his beliefs, an integrity of purpose that made him someone who never backed down, not even at the risk of looking bad in the eyes of the world. I found that admirable, and much as I adored my beautiful, endlessly charming mother for dazzling the world as she did, I also adored my father for resisting that same world. It could be maddening to watch him in action--a man who never seemed to care what others thought of him--but it was also instructive, and in the long run I think I paid more attention to those lessons than I ever realized.

As a young boy I fell into the mold of your classic go-getter. At the first sign of snow, I would run out with my shovel and start ringing doorbells, asking people if they would hire me to clear their driveways and front walks. When the leaves fell in October, I would be out there with my rake, ringing those same doorbells and asking about the lawns. At other times, when there was nothing to remove from the ground, I would inquire about "odd jobs." Straightening up the garage, cleaning out the cellar, pruning the hedges--whatever needed to be done, I was the man to do it. In the summer, I sold lemonade for ten cents a glass on the sidewalk in front of my house. I gathered up empty bottles from the kitchen pantry, loaded them in my little red wagon, and lugged them to the store to turn in for cash. Two cents for the small ones; five cents for the big. I mostly used my earnings to buy baseball cards, sports magazines, and comic books, and whatever was left over I would diligently put in my piggy bank, which was built in the shape of a cash register. I was truly the child of my parents, and I never questioned the principles that animated their world. Money talked, and to the degree that you listened to it and followed its arguments, you would learn to speak the language of life.

Once, I remember, I was in possession of a fifty-cent piece. I can't recall how I came to have that coin--which was just as rare then as it is now--but whether it had been given to me or whether I had earned it myself, I have a keen sense of how much it meant to me and what a large sum it represented. For fifty cents in those days you could buy ten packs of baseball cards, five comic books, ten candy bars, fifty jawbreakers--or, if you preferred, various combinations of all of them. I put the half-dollar in my back pocket and marched off to the store, feverishly calculating how I was going to spend my little fortune. Somewhere along the way, however, for reasons that still confound me, the coin disappeared. I reached into my back pocket to check on it--knowing it was there, just wanting to make sure--and the money was gone. Was there a hole in my pocket? Had I accidentally slid the coin out of my pants the last time I'd touched it? I have no idea. I was six or seven years old, and I still remember how wretched I felt. I had tried to be so careful, and yet for all my precautions, I had wound up losing the money. How could I have allowed such a thing to happen? For want of any logical explanation, I decided that God had punished me. I didn't know why, but I was certain that the All-Powerful One had reached into my pocket and plucked out the coin Himself.

Little by little, I started turning my back on my parents. it's not that I began to love them less, but the world they came from no longer struck me as such an inviting place to live. I was ten, eleven, twelve years old, and already I was becoming an internal emigre, an exile in my own house. Many of these changes can be attributed to adolescence, to the simple fact that I was growing up and beginning to think for myself--but not all of them. Other forces were at work on me at the same time, and each one had a hand in pushing me onto the road I later followed. It wasn't just the pain of having to witness my parents' crumbling marriage, and it wasn't just the frustration of being trapped in a small suburban town, and it wasn't just the American climate of the late 1950s--but put them all together, and suddenly you had a powerful case against materialism, an indictment of the orthodox view that money was a good to be valued above all others. My parents valued money, and where had it gotten them? They had struggled so hard for it, had invested so much belief in it, and yet for every problem it had solved, another one had taken its place. American capitalism had created one of the most prosperous moments in human history. It had produced untold numbers of cars, frozen vegetables, and miracle shampoos, and yet Eisenhower was President, and the entire country had been turned into a gigantic television commercial, an incessant harangue to buy more, make more, spend more, to dance around the dollar-tree until you dropped dead from the sheer frenzy of trying to keep up with everyone else.

It wasn't long before I discovered that I wasn't the only person who felt this way. At ten, I stumbled across an issue of Mad magazine in a candy store in Irvington, New Jersey, and I remember the intense, almost stupefying pleasure I felt at reading those pages. They taught me that I had kindred spirits in this world, that others had already unlocked the doors I was trying to open myself. Fire hoses were being turned on black people in the American South, the Russians had launched the first Sputnik, and I was starting to pay attention. No, you didn't have to swallow the dogma they were trying to sell you. You could resist them, poke fun at them, call their bluff. The wholesomeness and dreary rectitude of American life were no more than a sham, a halfhearted publicity stunt. The moment you began to study the facts, contradictions bubbled to the surface, rampant hypocrisies were exposed, a whole new way of looking at things suddenly became possible. We had been taught to believe in "liberty and justice for all," but the fact was that liberty and justice were often at odds with one another. The pursuit of money had nothing to do with fairness; its driving engine was the social principle of "every man for himself." As if to prove the essential inhumanity of the marketplace, nearly all of its metaphors had been taken from the animal kingdom: dog eat dog, bulls and bears, the rat race, survival of the fittest. Money divided the world into winners and losers, haves and have-nots. That was an excellent arrangement for the winners, but what about the people who lost? Based on the evidence available to me, I gathered that they were to be cast aside and forgotten. Too bad, of course, but those were the breaks. If you construct a world so primitive as to make Darwin your leading philosopher and Aesop your leading poet, what else can you expect? It's a jungle out there, isn't it? Just look at that Dreyfus lion strolling down the middle of Wall Street. Could the message be any clearer? Either eat or be eaten. That's the law of the jungle, my friend, and if you don't have the stomach for it, then get out while you still can.

I was out before I was ever in. By the time I entered my teens, I had already concluded that the world of business would have to get along without me. I was probably at my worst then, my most insufferable, my most confused. I burned with the ardor of a newfound idealism, and the stringencies of the perfection I sought for myself turned me into a pint-sized puritan-in-training. I was repulsed by the outward trappings of wealth, and every sign of ostentation my parents brought into the house I treated with scorn. Life was unfair. I had finally figured this out, and because it was my own discovery, it hit me with all the force of a revelation. As the months went by, I found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my good luck with the bad luck of so many others. What had I done to deserve the comforts and advantages that had been showered on me? My father could afford them--that was all--and whether or not he and my mother fought over money was a small point in comparison to the fact that they had money to fight over in the first place. I squirmed every time I had to get into the family car--so bright and new and expensive, so clearly an invitation to the world to admire how well off we were. All my sympathies were for the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the underdogs of the social order, and a car like that filled me with shame--not just for myself, but for living in a world that allowed such things to be in it.

My first jobs don't count. My parents were still supporting me, and I was under no obligation to fend for myself or contribute to the family budget. The pressure was therefore off, and without any pressure, nothing important can ever be at stake. I was glad to have the money I earned, but I never had to use it on nuts-and-bolts necessities, I never had to worry about putting food on the table or not falling behind with the rent. Those problems would come later. For now I was just a high school kid looking for a pair of wings to carry me away from where I was.

At sixteen, I spent two months working as a waiter at a summer camp in upstate New York. The next summer, I worked at my uncle Moe's appliance store in Westfield, New Jersey. The jobs were similar in that most of the tasks were physical and didn't require much thought. If carrying trays and scraping dishes was somewhat less interesting than installing air conditioners and unloading refrigerators from forty-foot trailer trucks, I wouldn't want to make too big a point of it. This isn't a question of apples and oranges--but of two kinds of apples, both the same shade of green. Dull as the work might have been, however, I found both jobs immensely satisfying. There were too many colorful characters around, too many surprises, too many new thoughts to absorb for me to resent the drudgery, and I never felt that I was wasting my time just to earn a paycheck. The money was an important part of it, but the work wasn't just about money. It was about learning who I was and how I fit into the world.

Even at the camp, where my coworkers were all sixteen- and seventeen-year-old high school boys, the kitchen help came from a starkly different universe. Down-and-outs, Bowery bums, men with dubious histories, they had been rounded up from the New York streets by the owner of the camp and talked into accepting their low-paying jobs--which included two months of fresh air and free room and board. Most of them didn't last long. One day they would just disappear, wandering back to the city without bothering to say good-bye. A day or two later, the missing man would be replaced by a similar lost soul, who rarely lasted very long himself. One of the dishwashers, I remember, was named Frank, a grim, surly guy with a serious drinking problem. Somehow or other, we managed to become friends, and in the evening after work was done we would sometimes sit on the steps behind the kitchen and talk. Frank turned out to be a highly intelligent, well-read man. He had worked as an insurance agent in Springfield, Massachusetts, and until the bottle got the better of him, he had lived the life of a productive, tax-paying citizen. I distinctly remember not daring to ask him what had happened, but one evening he told me anyway, turning what must have been a complicated story into a short, dry account of the events that had done him in. In the space of sixteen months, he said, every person who had ever meant anything to him died. He sounded philosophical about it, almost as if he were talking about someone else, and yet there was an undertow of bitterness in his voice. First his parents, he said, then his wife, and then his two children. Diseases, accidents, and burials, and by the time they were all gone, it was as if his insides had shattered. "I just gave up," he said. "I didn't care what happened to me anymore, so I became a bum."

The following year, in Westfield, I made the acquaintance of several more indelible figures. Carmen, for example, the voluminously padded, wisecracking bookkeeper, who to this day is still the only woman I've known with a beard (she actually had to shave), and Joe Mansfield, the assistant repairman with two hernias and a ravaged Chrysler that had wiped out the odometer three times and was now up to 360,000 miles. Joe was sending two daughters through college, and in addition to his day job at the appliance store, he worked eight hours every night as a foreman in a commercial bakery, reading comic books beside the huge vats of dough so as not to fall asleep. He was the single most exhausted man I have ever met--and also one of the most energetic. He kept himself going by smoking menthol cigarettes and downing twelve to sixteen bottles of orange soda a day, but not once did I ever see him put a morsel of food in his mouth. If he ate lunch, he said, it would make him too tired and he would collapse. The hernias had come a few years earlier, when he and two other men were carrying a jumbo refrigerator up a narrow flight of stairs. The other men had lost their grip, leaving Joe to bear the entire weight of the thing himself, and it was exactly then, as he struggled not to be crushed by the several hundred pounds he was holding, that his testicles had shot up out of his scrotum. First one ball, he said, and then the other. Pop ... pop. He wasn't supposed to lift heavy objects anymore, but every time there was an especially large appliance to deliver, he would come along and help us--just to make sure we didn't kill ourselves.

The us included a nineteen-year-old redhead named Mike, a tense, wiry shrimp with a missing index finger and one of the fastest tongues I had yet encountered. Mike and I were the air conditioner installation team, and we spent a lot of time together in the store van, driving to and from jobs. I never tired of listening to the onslaught of loopy, unexpected metaphors and outrageous opinions that came pouring out of him whenever he opened his mouth. If he found one of the customers too snotty, for example, he wouldn't say "that person's an asshole" (as most would) or "that person's stuck-up" (as some would), but "that person acts as if his shit doesn't smell." Young Mike had a special gift, and on several occasions that summer I was able to see how well it served him. Again and again we would enter a house to install an air conditioner, and again and again, just as we were in the middle of the job (screwing in the screws, measuring strips of caulking to seal up the window), a girl would walk into the room. It never seemed to fail. She was always seventeen, always pretty, always bored, always "just hanging around the house." The instant she appeared, Mike would turn on the charm. It was as if he knew she was going to come in, as if he had already rehearsed his lines and was fully prepared. I, on the other hand, was always caught with my guard down, and as Mike launched into his song and dance (a combination of bullshit, razzle-dazzle, and raw nerve), I would dumbly plod on with the work. Mike would talk, and the girl would smile. Mike would talk a little more, and the girl would laugh. Within two minutes they were old friends, and by the time I'd put the finishing touches on the job, they were swapping phone numbers and arranging where to meet on Saturday night. It was preposterous; it was sublime; it made my jaw drop. If it had happened only once or twice, I would have dismissed it as a fluke, but this scene was played out repeatedly, no less than five or six times over the course of the summer. In the end, I grudgingly had to admit that Mike was more than just lucky. He was someone who created his own luck.

Meet the Author

Paul Auster is the author of eight novels, including the New York Trilogy. He wrote the screenplay for the internationally acclaimed film Smoke and has just finished making a new film, Lulu on the Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Winter Journal, Sunset Park, Invisible, The Book of Illusions, and The New York Trilogy, among many other works. He has been awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature, the Prix Médicis Étranger, the Independent Spirit Award, and the Premio Napoli. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

"Auster has an enormous talent for creating worlds that are both fantastic and believable. . . . His novels are uniformly difficult to put down, a testament to his storytelling gifts."—Timothy Peters, San Francisco Chronicle

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Brooklyn, New York
Date of Birth:
February 3, 1947
Place of Birth:
Newark, New Jersey
Education:
B.A., M.A., Columbia University, 1970

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