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Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure

By Nicholas Nesson

HAND TO MOUTH: A CHRONICLE OF EARLY FAILURE, by Paul Auster. Henry Holt, 449 pages, $25.

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Though Paul Auster usually writes fascinating books, his prose is often flat, sometimes to the point of dullness. With the exception of his impressionistically poetic memoir of his father, The Invention of Solitude (1982), he has tended toward the lean, hardboiled style of detective writers like Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. But by combining that terse minimalism with an original moral sense, Auster has fashioned his own distinct form: his characters may affect an air of dangerous cool, but inwardly they are uncertain, skeptical, often perilously questioning. Why am I who I am? they ask. What got me to this point in life? And what would it take for me to be someone completely different?

Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure sounds like the ideal medium for such hard questions and free-form philosophical speculations. The book is a long essay on Auster's early struggles to earn a living as a writer, packaged with some previously unpublished samples of his work from that period: three short plays, a full-length detective novel, and the instructions for a version of rotisserie baseball played with a deck of cards. The collection gives him space to ruminate on his own bad luck, and the good that came from it; to show us firsthand the power of circumstance; and to re-present his commercial failures in the light of his literary genesis.

Unfortunately, though, Hand to Mouth lacks Auster's usual intellectual rigor. The title essay offers some good stories about his early, hardscrabble years -- working as a cook on a fishing boat, as an underpaid ghostwriter in Paris, and, most interestingly, as a catalogue writer for a rare-book dealer -- but the writing is sloppy. The rest of the collection ranges from the somewhat entertaining -- the detective novel Squeeze Play is pistol-packing camp, but it's as enjoyable as the average Robert Parker mystery -- to the stupidly pretentious. The three plays read like juvenile Beckett: they're utterly solemn and utterly meaningless.

It's not so surprising that Auster's early efforts are pretty weak -- after all, there's usually a good reason why a writer's first work goes unpublished. What's more perplexing is the laziness of the memoir. Although the content is at times intriguing, he's covered much of this ground before. Even that would be forgivable if he covered it more interestingly, but the prose in this new essay is almost unbearably clichéd. Here's a sample: "There was never any question of pitching my tent in one camp or the other"; "I had looked into the darkness and seen myself for the first time"; "As low man on the totem pole, I had no say at all"; "After my long run of good luck, the boom finally fell"; "I was an entirely alien specimen . . . a man from Mars." And the coup de gräce: "I was a desperate man, a man with my back against the wall, and I knew that if I didn't think of something fast, the firing squad was about to fill my body with bullets."

It's possible that Auster consciously chose these stale phrases because he wanted to tell his story in an everyday, barstool vernacular. That seems unlikely, though, given what the writer has had to say about linguistic laziness in others. "Reliance on fixed routines freed him from the necessity of looking into himself when decisions had to be made," Auster wrote of his father in The Invention of Solitude. "The cliché was always quick to come to his lips . . . instead of words he had gone out and looked for." To Auster, his father's habitually clichéd speech was a signifier of his distance from the world, his refusal to engage others in any meaningfully individuated way.

Yet one drowsy Sunday afternoon, Auster recalled, his father began spinning an unexpectedly colorful tale of his days as a prospector in South America. "Not only was he telling me new things about himself," Auster wrote, "but he was telling it with new and strange words. This language was just as important as the story itself." Young Paul was transported by this bit of semi-make-believe because of the freshness of the telling: "Its very strangeness was proof of its authenticity."

If originality of language matters so much to Auster, why would he consciously select the most stale clichés for his own writing? Why has he has opted for plainness and understatement, not just in Hand to Mouth but in almost all his fiction? Perhaps Auster means his own plainspokenness to be a remedy for isolation; perhaps he uses clichés so that we will all know precisely what he means. But, as Auster has said himself, making ourselves understood isn't good enough. We have to go out and look for the words with which to tell our stories.

Nicholas Nesson is a writer living in Boston.

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