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Book Review : Lost Identities Color New York Thriller

September 01, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Ghosts (Volume II of the New York Trilogy) by Paul Auster (Sun & Moon Press: $16.95)

"City of Glass," volume one in Paul Auster's New York trilogy, was a narrative of patterns, of characters pacing arbitrary designs in an unthinking, uncaring metropolis, assigning meaning to each block of concrete on Manhattan Island. "Ghosts" moves into more complex territory--dealing with human motives and identity and the effects of an urban past on the seemingly meaningless present.

Auster casts his story in the form of a detective thriller, not because there is any particular crime here to be investigated--although there may be--but because in the act of one person watching or following another, arbitrary roles are immediately assigned: "The case seems simple enough. White wants Blue to follow a man named Black and keep an eye on him for as long as necessary. While working for Brown Blue did many tail jobs, and this one seems no different, perhaps easier than most."

But detective stories and large cities have at least one essential thing in common: The inhabitants of the art form and the urban sprawl can choose their identity, and very often change it at will. In the country, one's parents, one's spouse, are immutable. In the city. . . .

One can change from poor to rich to poor again. One can change spouses or vocations or moral belief systems--from White to Black, and so on. Early on in this narrative, detective Blue recalls the Gray Case: "Gray had been missing for over a year, and his wife was ready to give him up for dead. Blue searched through all the normal channels and came up empty. Then, one day, as he was about to file his final report, he stumbled on Gray in a bar, not two blocks from where his wife was sitting, convinced he would never return. Gray's name was now Green, but Blue knew it was Gray in spite of this, for he had been carrying around a photograph of the man for the last three months. It turned out to be amnesia. . . ."

The reader who has taken the right English classes will recognize this as an allusion to "Wakefield," one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous short stories, and 50 pages later, the story and its author are mentioned once again: "Take Hawthorne," Black says. "A good friend of Thoreau's, and probably the first real writer America ever had. After he graduated from college he went back to his mother's house in Salem, shut himself up in his room, and didn't come out for 12 years. . . . Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. . . . But Hawthorne wrote great stories, you see, and we still read them now, more than 100 years later. In one of them, a man named Wakefield decides to play a joke on his wife. He tells her that he has to go away on a business trip for a few days, but instead of leaving the city, he goes around the corner, rents a room, and just waits to see what will happen."

Remember now, this is Black talking to Blue. Remember that earlier, White has hired Blue to follow Black and write weekly reports on him. Enough has happened during the narrative by this time that Blue and Black are sitting in a public place exchanging polite conversations about literature. Not only that, enough jimmying around with appearance and reality has made Black's true identity murky, and it's also up for grabs in terms of who is following whom.

Black's apartment is in Brooklyn, close to where "Walt Whitman hand set the first edition of 'Leaves of Grass' on this street in 1855, and it was here that Henry Ward Beecher railed against slavery from the pulpit of his red-brick church." Detective Blue is ensconced in an apartment across the street from Black, to watch. And watch. Black, it appears, is a writer. He sits for hours at his table, alone, and writes. Blue, in watching, changes from the comparatively cheerful soul he used to be: He is caught up in the act of watching and following and leaves his own chances for a happy and usual life far behind him, on the streets of Manhattan. Like the man he's following, like Hawthorne, like Whitman, like Wakefield, Blue becomes a "ghost." In the horizontal maze of streets, and in the vertical maze of history, Blue has managed to lose track of his own precariously held identity. And, of course, the less said of Mr. Black and Mr. White--and their relationship to each other and to the plot--the better. Looking at "Ghosts," the reader cannot but be aware of the tricky relationship between tradition and derivation.

The essential question here, as Blue follows Black--who may actually be White--and remembers the instructions of his mentor, Brown, is not just to keep in mind whether "Ghosts" succeeds as a homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne, which it appears to be, but to ask, whether, behind the strict "literary" tone, the minimalist disciplines that Auster requires of himself and his readers, "Ghosts" actually adds any new insights or material to these American preoccupations with history, identity, black-and-white. The reader will have to decide that for himself.

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