MR. VERTIGO

Paul Auster; Viking Penguin, 293 pages, $10.95 (paper)
How rich American life must have looked in the 20s, how full of promise. I don't have to tell you things became dismal around 1930, and neither does Paul Auster, but I sense he's hoping you'll come away from Mr. Vertigo, his eighth novel, with an overwhelming feel for the cyclical nature of American life. The book doesn't look that epic at first; it begins as the simple story of orphan Walter Rawley, a boy who learned to walk on air. But as the tale of his incredible life unfolds, it's difficult to keep reading without getting some of your beliefs about America sharpened, others deflated.

We meet Walter as a no-good 9-year-old street scamp trodding the filthy gutters of St. Louis. It is 1924. He is approached by a dark stranger who proclaims him "a piece of human nothingness," but nonetheless says Walter has "the gift" and offers him a bargain: If he can't teach the youngster to float in the air by his 13th birthday, Walter can chop off his head with an ax.

The man is Master Yehudi, a Hungarian Jew, and he takes Walter to a farm in Kansas to live with Mother Sue, an Oglala Sioux Indian and the de facto mother of the household, and Aesop, a bookish 15-year-old boy. At the master's direction, Walt endures a numbing series of tests. He's buried alive for 24 hours with only a breathing tube. He stands in the heat, skin smeared with honey, as insects crawl over him -- all in the name of some mysterious training. (At times it seems a bit much like an old episode of Kung Fu.) But he learns to levitate, then tours the country with Yehudi as "Walt, the Wonder Boy."

With whirlwind storytelling, Auster details how the pair's fame becomes widespread, how Walt's puberty ends his levitational career and how Walt lives out the remainder of his life against a 20th-century canvas, stretching from the Kansas farmhouse to the California desert to the Chicago Mob. We get a stunning array of details in a life that is at once amazing and mundane. Rich in metaphorical possibility, the polychromatic Mr. Vertigo is nothing if not ambitious, and such a book is easy to root for but not always easy to evaluate. The book's ambition makes you want Auster to pull it off without a flaw, to walk on air himself, and that's a lot to ask.

As people talk in the novel, you're struck by the self-aware artifice in the writing -- Auster's characters speak in stilted, loaded language, laden with "bet your boots" and "shave your tonsils" and "till the end of time." It takes longer than it should for you to accept the dialogical flights of fancy, but when you do, you're into it -- the rhythm, the staccato-legato alternation of Auster's too-good-to-be-true conversations. A few times the book veers into the silly, but it's Auster; once you've boarded his bus, you'll get where you're going, flat tires and all.

Occasional missteps don't keep this novel from scoring on multiple planes; good storytelling coexists with insight and lots of color. What makes this story of an American life worthwhile for the largest number of readers is that Auster has completed a creative exercise that hews as closely in spirit as recent fiction can to the truly picaresque.

-- Jason Aycock

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