Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
Among the wealth of pleasures of working in a bookstore like Longfellow Books, with its family of literate customers and colleagues, is learning about treasures that might, in another lifetime, have passed unnoticed. A recent serendipitous connection led me to Kate Christensen’s The Astral and the acquaintance of her protagonist Harry Quirk, one of the more finely drawn and winsome characters to be found in recent fiction.
Harry’s story begins somewhat inauspiciously: it’s late afternoon in Greenpoint and Harry’s aimless peregrinations around Brooklyn have lead him to Marlene’s, “one of the last local old man bars,” for a shot and a beer. Turns out that Harry has been unceremoniously thrown out of his apartment in the Astral by his wife of thirty years. His prospects appear bleak. Harry is an unemployed fifty-eight year old poet whose publisher closed up shop and moved to London long ago. He’s living in a flophouse not far from the Astral, hoping to convince Luz, his wife, to take him back. Luz has justified throwing Harry out on the streets because she claims Harry is having an affair with his best friend Marion (he’s not). The author skillfully weaves other threads into the narrative including Karina, Harry and Luz’s freegan daughter who somehow manages to seem wiser than both her parents and Hector, the son whose seeking has led him to the warm embrace/clutches of a religious community/cult.
At one point Harry looks around and finds his family to be scattered and in disarray. He thinks back to a better time, when the four of them were gathered together in the fifth floor apartment of the Astral. But much of the story rests upon Harry’s gradual realization that perhaps those times were not as idyllic as he recalls and maybe the different paths of family members were inevitable. Harry certainly changes, from a wandering, dissolute and unemployable lost soul to someone alight at his slowly dawning awareness of life’s delights and possibilities. What’s most impressive about the author’s accomplishment (besides that as a young woman she has somehow successfully gotten inside the head of a man twice her age), is that we are every bit as fond of early Harry, the stumble-bum failure at love and life, as we are of the new Harry that develops by story’s end. The process of witnessing that emergence is a wonderfully satisfying reading experience, a perfect way to celebrate the arrival of spring, the season of rebirth.
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]