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Auster and Alexie

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, finalist for the Mann-Booker

     I stuck with this book, all 37 hours of listening time, even though there were points at which I wondered why and worried that the answer lay in the time I had invested. I was curious nonetheless and wanted to learn how Auster resolved the four stories swirling around one protagonist. The reader/listener follows Ferguson, the boy, the adolescent, the young adult, the budding writer through four different scenarios, watching him grow up in four different places in the New York Metro area.

     Throughout, I found myself thinking about Auster’s process, wondering if he wrote the four highly detailed, well-told stories separately first and later broke them into segments—childhood, middle school and the onset of puberty, high school, for example, and then braided them back together. For writer and reader, it is a lot to keep straight, which Ferguson living where playing baseball, no, basketball, father dead, father alive, mother remarried to which of two brothers, Amy a step-sister or cousin or love of his life?

     What I came to deeply appreciate in the thirty-seventh hour is that Auster, as a mature writer who himself grew up in roughly the same time period as I did—the era when Ferguson grows up and launches himself into adulthood—is a master at writing in the voice and style of a young guy at the beginning of his writing career. The one Ferguson surviving at the end, unlike the other three who are killed off, is writing a novel that is, as I said, memoiresque. He is not a reporter or poet or translator as in other versions the reader has followed, but a writer in his early twenties at the beginning of a promising career. Auster left me wondering about truth, fiction and memoir. How many truths are there: 4? 3? 2? 1?

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir by Sherman Alexie

     Alexie performs this book, which gives both his writing and reading of it a raw authenticity and deep, boiling over passion that I appreciated. The lengthy opening chapter is beautifully written, gripping, visual, alive, bright within the darkness of poverty, drunkenness, abuse that come with life on the res. The chapters to follow—a hundred how many?—are short, some the length of a poem. The interlacing of poetry and prose worked for me, and much of Alexie’s power in this book is delivered in verse. Sadly, though, I agree with a review in The New York Times that described the second half of the book as “baggy.” In Alexie’s knowledgements read at the end of the “bagginess,” he thanks his new editor profusely, which made me squirm.

     What made me most uncomfortable, I think, is Alexie’s failure to persuade me that his mother was as “cruel” as he claims. Poverty was cruel, teachers at the res school were cruel, alcoholism and abuse were cruel, I saw and felt that, but never his mother’s. Alexie articulates clearly, sometimes eloquently, the circumstances of his mother’s life. He offers his insights, shows his empathy. At one point, he asks himself the most difficult question: why does he feel this way toward his mother when, in fact, it was his father who left the family again and again so he could go on three- and four-day, even week-long, benders? The father did not work, while the mother stayed with the five kids, and worked late sewing the quilts to sell. She did what she could to keep food on the table, she a victim of rape, a victim who struggled with bi-polar disease.

     Alexie tells the reader how painful it is for him to cope with his mother’s death, to resolve anything about his tortured relationship with her. There are hints—hope—that Alexie is coming/will come to terms with his mother’s story and his own, but the reader may not see enough change to shape an arc. The book feels like a spiral that continues to spiral.

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