Mr. Vertigo [NOOK Book]


Paul Auster, the New York Times-bestselling author of The New York Trilogy presents a dazzling, picaresque novel set in the late 1920s – the era of Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and Al Capone. Walter Claireborne Rawley, renowned nationwide as "Walt the Wonder Boy," is a Saint Louis orphan rescued from the streets by a mysterious Hungarian Jew, Master Yehudi, who teaches Walt to walk on air. Master Yehudi brings Walt into a Kansas circus troupe consisting of Mother Sioux and Aesop, a young black genius. The ...
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Mr. Vertigo

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Paul Auster, the New York Times-bestselling author of The New York Trilogy presents a dazzling, picaresque novel set in the late 1920s – the era of Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and Al Capone. Walter Claireborne Rawley, renowned nationwide as "Walt the Wonder Boy," is a Saint Louis orphan rescued from the streets by a mysterious Hungarian Jew, Master Yehudi, who teaches Walt to walk on air. Master Yehudi brings Walt into a Kansas circus troupe consisting of Mother Sioux and Aesop, a young black genius. The vaudeville act takes them across a vast and vibrant country, through mythic Americana where they meet and fall prey to sinners, thieves, and villains, from the Kansas Ku Klux Klan to the Chicago mob. Walt's rise to fame and fortune mirrors America's own coming of age, and his resilience, like that of the nation, is challenged over and over and over again.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It will come as no surprise to the gifted Auster's Moon Palace, The Music of Chance many fans that walking on air, the implausible premise of his marvelously whimsical seventh novel, is treated with convincing gravity. Walt Rawley recounts his life: an orphan born in 1924 with ``the gift,'' he was seized by his master, Mr. Yehudi, a Hungarian Jew who taught him to levitate. Yehudi takes the boy from St. Louis to his own Kansas menage, which consists of Mother Sioux and Aesop, a young black genius. Also influencing Walt's life is classy, henna-headed Marion Witherspoon, a seductive mom figure from Wichita. After harsh training, Walt tours with his mentor as ``the Wonder Boy,'' aka Mr. Vertigo. Crammed into this road saga is the potent Americana of myth: the 1920s carnival circuit, Lindbergh's solo, the motorcar, the ethnic mix, the Ku Klux Klan and the Mob, baseball and Kansas, ``land of Oz.'' Diverse mishaps descend, but eventually Walt glides into old age and writing. The characters speak a lusty lingo peppered with vintage slang, while a postmodern authorial irony tugs their innocence askew. The prose grows particularly electric when demystifying ``loft and locomotion.'' Implicit is an analogy between levitation and the construct of fiction: both require fierce discipline to maintain a fleeting illusion. Aug.
Library Journal
Rescued from the streets of St. Louis and taught to fly by Master Yehudi, Walter Rawley soon becomes a national sensation. The boy wonder foils a kidnapping by his evil uncle, but his powers of levitation suddenly wane with the onset of puberty, and he declines from miracle worker to Depression-era mobster. Auster provides a dazzling display of narrative power, but his story remains a metaphysical muddle. Fluctuating between the fabulous and the mundane, it establishes no firm foundation in either realm. If Yehudi's mysterious powers are real, why must his wards die in a Klan lynching and why must Yehudi himself resort to suicide? If the alleged powers are spurious and Auster's aging narrator is unreliable, the extent of his unreliability needs sharper definition. Auster's previous novel, Leviathan LJ 7/92, is a much more absorbing study of the elusiveness of truth.-Albert E. Wilhelm, Tennessee Technological Univ., Cookeville
Donna Seaman
In novels such as "Leviathan" 1992, Auster has proved himself an expert in the weather of the mind and soul, particularly of the adult male variety, but here he casts all such subtlety aside to spin a tall tale about a boy who learns how to fly. The scene is St. Louis, circa 1926, and the boy is a scrappy orphan named Walter Claireborne Rawley, ward of his crude and cruel uncle Slim. When a mysterious stranger calling himself Master Yehudi asks Slim for the boy, he blithely gives him away. Walt soon finds himself in the middle of Kansas, far from his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the action of city streets. His seemingly omnipotent master subjects him to a series of bloodcurdling trials, until, lo and behold, Walt is able to cavort in thin air. In no time, he's Walt the Wonder Boy, wowing audiences all across the country until his evil uncle Slim surfaces, looking for a payoff. Walt is our matter-of-fact narrator, ostensibly writing his memoir decades after these improbable events took place. His rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story is spiked with bits of Americana, bursts of violence, condemnation of racism, and, frankly, more than a little silliness. Auster has tried some new things and conjured some curious characters, but there is something slippery about this fable. Master Yehudi, the character we want to know about most, remains annoyingly out of reach, while many other elements seem hollow or anemic. A transitional work but one that will garner attention.
Jay Cantor
Mr. Auster adopts a more vernacular style than usual (though it's a brilliantly filigreed demotic, making it, of course, highfalutin in its own way).... The author's openness to chance and laundromats could lead to the slack picaresque throughout, but his story is usually held taut by the metaphorical meanings of flight.... The story is witty, inventive in its language, and invitingly playful with its metaphors. It has a fairy tale's compulsion to it.
The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
A charmer pure and simple…Nothing less than the story of America itself
Washington Post
The Washington Post
The author of Leviathan returns with a dazzling, picaresque, new novel in which Walter Claireborne Rawley, now an octogenarian, recounts his extraordinary vaudevillian adventures as "Walt the Wonder Boy" in 1924. "One hears every page of this novel, and sees it as well."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101562635
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/1/1995
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 604,426
  • File size: 478 KB

Meet the Author

Paul Auster
Paul Auster is the bestselling author of The New York Trilogy and many other critically acclaimed novels. He was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in 2006. His work has been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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    1. Also Known As:
      Paul Benjamin
    2. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 3, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newark, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      B.A., M.A., Columbia University, 1970

Reading Group Guide

Mr. Vertigo
by Paul Auster


Critics describe Paul Auster as a storyteller with few modern equals. Auster himself looks to "the anonymous men and women who invented the fairy tales we still tell each other today" as an unending source of inspiration. The debt is clear and welcome in this, his eighth novel, a delight for any reader willing to sit back and give herself up into the hands of a master storyteller. Mr. Vertigo is a genuinely fabulous tale, a page-turner as mythic as the American tall tale and as down-to-earth as a Kansas wheat field, as American as Prohibition and baseball, and as alien as a spiritual quest to conquer gravity itself.


It's the story of Walter Rawley, a wisecracking street urchin from St. Louis who is taken in hand by Master Yehudi, a quasi-religious master who hails from Budapest via Brooklyn. Walt, endearingly described early on by Master Yehudi as a "pus-brained ragamuffin from honky-tonk row," has a hard head, a sharp tongue, and a gift the master has been searching for for years: properly taught, he can levitate. Sometimes cruel, often unnerving, and deeply moving, theirs is one of the most original and unorthodox partnerships in American letters. The story careens between the sublime to the ridiculous, as Master Yehudi and Walt the Wonder Boy take their act on the potholed back roads of the Midwest, their eyes on fame, fortune, and the Great White Way. Walt's reversals of fortune at the hands of his hormones, the Ku Klux Klan, the Chicago mob, and his own perversity are too many to count, and every inch of them entertains and illuminates. To appreciate the precision and cadence of Auster's writing, try reading Mr. Vertigo aloud. Be careful at the very end, where Walt, now an old man looking back, explains how to fly.


The grandson of Jewish immigrants, Paul Auster was born in Newark in 1947, and grew up in South Orange and the New Jersey suburbs. He received an undergraduate degree and a master's in comparative literature from Columbia University in New York City. Then, after a six-month stint as an ordinary seaman on a tanker in the Gulf of Mexico, he spent four years in France, writing poems and doing translations to eke out a living. Back in New York, Auster got married, had a son, Daniel, and published four volumes of poetry - "only read by other poets," he claims. In 1979 his marriage broke up, his father died, and Auster found himself writing prose. Published in 1982 as the first half of a book called The Invention of Solitude, Portrait of an Invisible Man is a family memoir of a story Auster's father never told: the murder of his grandfather at the hands of the man's wife, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1919. Auster never went back to poetry. He has published eight novels in the last ten years, though he says in this interview, "Just because you've written one book doesn't mean you'll be able to write a second." A literary celebrity in Europe, Auster's work has been translated in to twenty languages and published to growing critical acclaim in the United States. He has just finished working on two movies in collaboration with Wayne Wang: Smoke, starring William Hurt and Harvey Keitel, for which he wrote the screenplay; and Blue in the Face, which he co-directed. In 1981 he met Siri Hustvedt, a novelist of Norwegian descent, at a poetry reading. They married in 1982, and live in a row house in Brooklyn's Park Slope with their daughter, Sophie, who is seven years old.


Q: What drew you to the story of Mr. Vertigo?

A: That's a great mystery to me. I don't know where it came from. For years I'd been walking around with a tale of a master and a disciple in my head, never very clearly defined, and never much of a story, just a situation. When I sat down to write it, I thought it would be about twenty pages. Obviously, I was wrong.

Q: You once told an interviewer that "very strong emotions, traumas even, generate [my] stories." Was that the case with Mr. Vertigo?

A: Again, every book I've ever written has been a conundrum to me. I don't know what I'm doing, or why I'm doing it. There is simply the compulsion to do it, the absolute necessity of getting that story down on paper. Sometimes, later, after a book is written, I have little glimmers of understanding about where it came from, little hints. With Mr. Vertigo, I think it has something to do with the idea of falling from high places. I say that in the way an anthropologist would say it, strictly based on observation and the evidence of my own eyes. I can think of several books I've written in which people fall. In the most important scene of In the Country of Last Things, Anna Blume jumps through a window on the top floor of a building in order to save herself; she's not killed, but it changes the course of her entire life. In Moon Palace, Fogg's obese father falls into an open grave and breaks his back. Everything in Leviathan revolves around a man falling off a fire escape. All this, I think (but how can I really know?) might be connected to something that happened to my father when I was a little boy. He was working on a roof in Jersey City and fell off, just like that. He slipped and started tumbling through the air. If not for a clothesline that broke his fall, he probably would have been killed. Though I didn't see it happen, I walked around with that image in my head all through my childhood: my father flying through space. Maybe that's the source, the thing at the bottom of my strange obsession.

Q: One of my favorite things about the book is the combination of the spiritual and the utterly mundane. Both are certainly present in the character of Master Yehudi: sometimes he sounds like a Zen priest, sometimes like a carnival huckster.

A: He's a very complex character. On the one hand he's a con man, a charlatan, an operator trying to make a lot of money--just like everyone else in America. On the other hand, he has a very deep spiritual side. He's interested in spiritual truths. Defying the laws of nature, as he proposes to do with Walt, puts him in a very precarious and interesting position with God, with the universe, with man. And Master Yehudi thinks about these things. He takes them seriously.

Q: Where does he come by his spiritual leanings?

A: Hard to say. He was there, fully formed in my head before I started writing. Later on I realized that his biography was quite similar to Houdini's, who was also a Hungarian Jew who came from a family of rabbis. His real name was Erich Weiss. The contrast between what you might call the mythical and the everyday, how they combine and live side by side in the same world, is part of what this book is about. It's what establishes its tone. Recently I stumbled across an interview with Peter Brook, the theater director, that had a tremendous impact on me. He managed to articulate something I'd been reflecting on for years. He said - and I don't know if this is an exact quote, but it's the gist of it - that what he's striving for in his theater work is the closeness of the everyday and the distance of myth. He said, "Without the everyday you can't be touched, and without the myth you can't be amazed." It's a very deep remark, a statement that comes from years of thinking about what he's doing. I was very moved by those words, and in some way I think they articulate precisely what I was hoping to achieve with Mr. Vertigo.

Q: Walt uses a lot of religious language and imagery too. Where does it come from?

A: What interests me about American language, the language of the people, is that it's very crude, very lively, very inventive. But at the same time, there's a Biblical component to it, especially the Bible in the King James version, which is undoubtedly the most read book in American history, as well as the book that has been most listened to. For many people, especially people of earlier generations, it was the only literature they knew. So there's an astonishing combination in the American vernacular of what you might call the high and the low. Walt's speech is a perfect example of that.

Q: Isn't Walt searching for some sort of truth?

A: No more or less than anyone else. We're all looking for the truth, aren't we? Something to believe in, something solid to stand on. You can read this book in many different ways, and I don't think that one reading is more valid than another. They all coexist. You can look at it as a parable of childhood, but you can also look at it as a piece of American history. You can look at it as a novel about the public and the private, about money, about show biz, about success and failure. I would be the last person to try to impose an interpretation on a reader.

Q: Why did you write the story in the first person?

A: Another question I can't answer. That's just how it came to me, the old man looking back. You could say, though--assuming you're a literary critic-that a first-person narration is less reliable than a story told in the third person. A third-person narrator is omniscient; you trust the voice, you accept it on faith. A first-person narration is more complex, because you have to take into account who's saying what, and why. What if the narrator is lying on purpose? You can never ignore that as a possibility.

Q: It's pretty dramatic to make poor Walt choose between his testicles and stardom. How come you shaped the story that way?

A: I couldn't think of a more dramatic conflict.

Q: Explaining why Mrs. Witherspoon won't be joining them on tour, Master Yehudi says, "If you just stand there and wait, there's a chance the thing you're hoping for will come right to you." Do you think his fix on romantic love is as off-base as Walt does?

A: For many of the things one most ardently wants, patience is a great virtue. Sometimes things do come to you, including love. But Master Yehudi makes one mistake after another where Mrs. Witherspoon is concerned. He doesn't play his cards right.

Q: Mrs. Witherspoon's a lusty lady. Do you think sex is important to men and women in the same way?

A: I don't think she has a different approach to her sexuality than either Walt or Master Yehudi. Mrs. Witherspoon is my kind of woman, and I would venture to say that her view of sex is a lot less unusual than people might think. To give you some idea of how my books get written, I have to confess that when I started the novel there was no Mrs. Witherspoon. She just emerged. She started making appearances as I was writing, and became more and more important as the book continued. Actually, and this is occurring to me for the first time, if there's any book that Mr. Vertigo is connected to, it's Pinocchio, a book that I've thought about long and hard over the years. In some odd way you could say that Walt is Pinocchio, Master Yehudi is Master Geppeto, and Mrs. Witherspoon is the Blue Fairy.

Q: Walt the Wonder Boy says, "You have to keep testing yourself, pushing your talent as hard as you can.... People begin to sense that you're out there taking risks for them." Is this true of writing?

A: As a writer, I don't think about the audience in the way an actual performer does. When I wrote that passage, I was thinking about real entertainers, people who stand up in public and do their work in front of a crowd of strangers.

Q: In your opinion, who are the great storytellers?

A: The anonymous men and women who invented the fairy tales we still tell each other today, the authors of the 1001 Nights, the European folk tales, the whole oral tradition that started the moment men learned how to talk. They're an unending source of inspiration to me.

Q: Are those the sorts of books you like to read? What's on your bedside table?

A: It's very cluttered right now, which probably means it's a good cross-section of the kinds of things that interest me. My wife and I just bought two books for our daughter, who is almost eight, but I claimed them first: a collection of Yiddish folk tales and another one of French folk tales. I was recently sent the unabridged, enormous, first English translation of The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, and that's there too. Then there's a book about intelligence in dogs, because I'm trying to write about a dog. Low Life by Luc Santo, and A Void by Georges Perec, a novelist I admire very much. Also... let me think... a book of poems by Charles Simic... and one or two others.

Q: Talking about writing in The New York Times Magazine, you say, "You suffer a lot. You feel inadequate. The sense of failure is enormous." Do you still feel that way in the light of your growing reputation?

A: Oh yes. The longer you go on writing, the harder writing becomes. You set higher and higher standards for yourself, and the risks you take become bigger, more dangerous, more disturbing. Just because you've written one book doesn't mean you'll be able to write a second, and just because you've written a second doesn't mean you'll be able to write a third. The struggles go on right to the end. When I read nice things about me or my work, it's as though they're talking about someone else. People also say a lot of nasty things, and if you've made up your mind not to let that get you down, the only honest way to deal with praise is to ignore it, too.

Q: In the same interview you describe writing as "certainly a stupid way to live your life, isolating yourself every day, making something nobody really needs or wants." Do you really believe that?

A: Much of the time, yes. Some of the time, no. But, for better or worse, writing is what I do, it's what I do best. I'm not good for anything else.

- Ashton Applewhite


  1. At their first meeting, Master Yehudi says to Walt, "You're the answer to my prayers, son. That's why I want you. Because you have the gift." What is the gift? Is it a blessing or a curse?
  2. "She may be fat and toothless, but she's the closest thing to a mother you'll ever have," says Master Yehudi when he introduces Walt to Mother Sioux. Certainly the strange trinity of Mother Sioux, Aesop, and Master Yehudi is the closest Walt comes to having a family. Do they qualify? What roles do Aesop and Mother Sioux fulfill for Walt?
  3. After Walt's escape into the snowstorm, Master Yehudi diagnoses Walt with a case of the Ache of Being, provoked by being "jolted into submission." Why does Walt wake up to discover that "the hatred festering inside me had been transformed into love?" What do you think submission--or, for that matter, Mother Sioux's magic--had to do with it?
  4. There's nothing otherworldly about Walt and Master Yehudi's daily lives or dreams of riches, and the Master warns his student never to look down on the bumpkins they entertain. Yet the Master rhapsodizes, "Not like a bird, my little man. Like a god. You'd be the wonder of wonders, Walt, the holy of holies. As long as men walked the earth, they'd worship you as the greatest man among them." Do you think Master Yehudi believes these grand promises? Why does he make them?
  5. Two years into his tutelage, Walt says of Master Yehudi, "I had learned that everything I was flowed directly from him. He had made me in his own image...." Master Yehudi paints quite a different picture as he lies dying.

    He says: "Whatever you are it's because of me. Isn't that so, Walt?"

    "Of course it is. I was a no-good bum before you found me."

    "I just want you to know that it works both ways. Whatever I am, it's because of you."

    How do Master Yehudi's and Walt's views of their relationship differ? How do these feelings change over time?
  6. Walt feels no qualms about becoming a Jazz Age swell because "without the Master I was no one, and I wasn't going anywhere." He says, "Every time I took another step forward, I drifted farther away from the person I'd been with Master Yehudi. The best part of me was lying under the ground with him." At times Master Yehudi was far from benevolent; do you see him as a force for good in Walt's life? How would he feel about the turn Walt's life has taken?
  7. Sex is important to all the main characters in Mr. Vertigo - after all, it's puberty, not lack of talent or spirituality that does in Walt the Wonder Boy - but romantic love doesn't really pan out for any of them. Were you surprised when Walt finds happiness with Molly Fitzsimmons? What's Mrs. Witherspoon's role in the novel?
  8. Mr. Vertigo could be read as a parable about striving and success, celebrity and the price exacted for it. Is what Walt gains worth the suffering he goes through?
  9. Paul Auster has described Mr. Vertigo as "a spiritual quest as much as anything." The Holy Grail Walt pursues as an adult is one of revenge and self-destruction, not life or grace. What kind of spiritual quest is this? How many transformations does Walt actually undergo? Would you call them spiritual?
  10. What do you think are Walt's real talents in life? What might he have become if flying had not made him feel possessed of a special destiny, "set apart from others" for his whole life. Do you think you'd like Walt if you met him in person?


If you loved Mr.Vertigo, you'll want to read Paul Auster's other books, also available in paperback from Penguin:

The Art of Hunger

Auster reflects on his own work and traces the compulsion to make literature (or art) through essays on Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Laura Riding, Knut Hamsun, John Ashbery, and other seminal figures of the twentieth century.

In the Country of Last Things

A woman searches for her brother in a devastated and violent world. "Reminiscent in many ways of Orwell's 1984. Auster creates a place so real it could be our own country, perhaps our very own city." - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Invention of Solitude

Auster's moving and personal meditation on fatherhood "integrates heart and intellect, sensation and it relentlessly tries to make sense of the shocks of living." - Newsday


When Peter Aaron's friend Benjamin Sachs blows himself up by the side of the road, it launches him on an investigation into the nature of friendship and betrayal, sexual desire and estrangement, and the unpredictable intrusions of violence in the everyday.

Moon Palace

This "beautiful and haunting" (San Francisco Chronicle) book follows Marco Stanley Fogg, a child of the sixties, from the canyons of Manhattan to the deserts of Utah in search of answers to the ultimate riddle of his fate.

The Music of Chance

Drifters Jim Nashe and Jack Pozzi enter a poker game against two rich eccentrics, and risk their freedom on the single blind turn of a card. "All the suspense and pace of a bestselling thriller" (The New York Times) and the basis for the critically-acclaimed movie.

The New York Trilogy

Auster's novels City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room comprise an " of manifest originality, if not genius" (San Francisco Examiner) and "a brilliant investigation of the storyteller's art guided by a writer-detective who's never satisfied with just the facts." (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Wish I had checked it out at library first...

    I paid $14 for this book while out of town, and I must say I wish I could get my $14 back. While i'm not saying it's the worst book I have ever read, it's definitley not one of the best. I had high hopes based on other reviews, but was sorely disappointed. The writing style is fantastic and it is a well delivered historical fiction. However it's the story itself I had a hard time getting into. I felt like I was riding a roller coaster with this book. It was a little slow, then it got really really good, then it nose dived again, and then then kinda ended on a flat note. I wouldn't recommend this book, but I suppose based on your taste, you might enjoy it. The book store I purchased it from highly recommended it, but it just didn't do it for me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2004

    Awesome Book!!

    I just finished Mr. Vertigo, and thought it was an outstanding book. It definitely, stood out from most that I have read, as it is very well written, and even after you're done it seems to stick with you!! I highly recommend it to those looking for something with more to say, than your typical 'quick' read.( Not for young children.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2000

    Mr. Vertigo Soars

    oh i cannot even tell you how amazing this book is. definitely not for young kids, although the cover may seem that way (dont judge a book by its cover)- it is sooo well written. I actually have to say that is is one of the best books i have ever read. i HIGHLY reccomend this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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