What If You Could Have 4 Lives?


By Paul Auster

Lives You Could Have

Paul Auster explores in great detail the effects a change early on can make in a life. The subject is Archie Ferguson and the change is the burning down of his father’s appliance/furniture store. As Archie himself muses fifty or so pages in, “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now.” The last line is the theme of the novel, a “what if” game played on what is at once a small and large field, these being one man’s life through some turbulent times, the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s an interesting thought for the very reason it is unoriginal: nearly everybody wonders what if at some point. Few, however, flesh things out in the extravagant detail you’ll find in 4 3 2 1.

Auster groups Archie’s four possible lives into seven chapters, dividing each chapter into four parts, Archie’s four lives. This can make for some reading challenges. As you might imagine, once you’ve read through a full chapter you have to pick up the thread of Archie’s first life again. Auster thankfully puts in small markers at the start of each to help you orient yourself. Just a guess here, but he’s also anticipated that some readers after the first chapter will decide to simplify things on their own by reading each life straight through. Not a bad strategy for keeping everything straight as Auster cobbles on a coda at the very end which sorts out the real and imagined. The only proviso here: you’ll want to read them in order, that is life one first, etc.

Prepare yourself for lives in great detail. Few of us probably are as introspective as the four Archies, even as a small child, since he is quite a precocious fellow. Archie delves deeply and in detail into home life, all school levels, sports, current events (assassinations, wars, elections, poverty, white flight, etc.), and particularly love and relationships, his own, his parents’, grandparents’, and friends’. No wonder the novel clocks in at 866 pages.

However, because Auster writes deftly, the whole thing moves along at a fairly rapid pace. So, don’t be put off by the massive paragraphs and the long winding sentences. They may appear intimidating, but you’ll find yourself gliding along without much trouble.

Will you like the novel and will you be willing to spend a considerable amount of time with it? You will if the idea of “what if” intrigues you. You will probably pause from time to time to consider your own multiverses. You certainly will if the time periods interest you. Auster does a remarkable job of hitting all the high and low points, a memory jogger for older readers and an introduction to interesting times for younger readers. And, finally, if you click with the fellow who will be with you every minute of the trip, Archie. w/c


Herman Wouk’s 100th Birthday, Part 2

Celebrate His Birthday by Reading Him

Herman Wouk celebrated his 100th birthday on May 27. Celebrating his creativity, we present our previously published review of his book about the rise and fall of a writer, Youngblood Hawke. Many writers like to use writers as their characters but few have created a character as vibrant as Hawke. And none have spoken so much truth on the subject. Youngblood Hawke is among our favorites, and we hope with be yours as well.

Youngblood Hawke (1962)

Youngblood Hawke is like a work of the eponymous protagonist: a giant novel that chronicles the life of a small town hick who believes he possesses a talent to tell stories in huge, grand, epic literature.

Here’s a wonderful novel for everybody, including aspiring writers who dream of fame and fortune; people who want an insider’s peek into the publishing and entertainment industries; readers who enjoy fully realized characters of many dimensions, pleasing and prickly, living and breathing within a plot that mirrors the immediate post-WWII era; men who dream of larger than life women; women who dream of smart, successful but also caring men, who sometimes behave like cads; everyone who fantasizes of life roughly in the era of television’s “Mad Men.”

Briefly, Hawke writes his way through the Pacific theater in World War II, producing, among other works, a sprawling novel of small town life in the mountainous coal country of Kentucky (think Wolfe’s unedited O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life or Perkin’s edited Look Homeward, Angel).

We meet him in New York in the offices of the publisher that has purchased Alms for Oblivion. Hawke negotiates a deal the publisher assures him is unprecedented for a first-time novelist. Fortunately, he later meets among our favorite female characters, the alluring, smart, and blunt Jeanne Green, the best editor any author could ever hope for. We have to believe Wouk modeled her to some degree at least after Max Perkins of Scribner’s. Of course, Hawke falls for her immediately, even though she compares his style to that of O. Henry. And she, yes, she reciprocates the attraction and love. Unfortunately for the both of them, Frieda Winter appears, older, wiser, beautiful, charming, married, and wantonly hedonistic. Soon, Hawke suffers the pains of an enduring affair, of love unrealized.

Wouk also introduces us to a cast of unforgettable characters who play important roles in his life: the quintessential agent Ferdie Lax, the unscrupulous developer and capitalist Scotty Hoag, the enterprising star of screen and Broadway Georges Feydal, the sweet and sour bulldog mom Sarah Hawke, the noble publisher Ross Hodge, the grimy schlock paperback publisher Givney, the disillusioned Marxist Karl Fry, and dozens more.

Hawke writes as if possessed, and he is: possessed by the desire to build a fortune that will enable him to focus on his real mission, to write the great, all-encompassing American Comedy; that being a recording of life in these United States of America (like Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money or Ross Lockridge, Jr.’s mythical and mystical Raintree County.) He produces prodigiously, two thousand, five thousand, ten thousands words a day, sober or drunk, sick or well, anguished by love or inspired by it.

Sadly, he succumbs to two weaknesses. First, as a youth, he drove a coal truck. He crashed and suffered a serve head injury that left him with epilepsy. Second, he mistakenly believes himself to be something of a businessman. He invests unwisely in commercial real estate ventures. He also vainly starts his own publishing company to capture more of the revenue generated by his books. He badly mismanages his income taxes (in a time when the top marginal rate hovered at 91 percent and the penalties could be stiff indeed).

In the end, Hawke lands within a hare’s breath of achieving everything: marriage to Jeanne, the surcease of debt problems, and the freedom to write his grand multi-volume masterpiece. Except the weight of fame, fortune gained and frittered away, and bad decisions catch up with him in a poignant and beautiful ending.

Now, as you read Youngblood Hawke, you’ll find yourself wondering who these characters might have been in real life. Some believe that Wouk modeled Hawke after Thomas Wolfe. Hard to say definitively, however, if you have only passing knowledge of Wolfe’s life, you’ll recognize a few similarities between fictive and real life.

Hawke comes from the mountain town of Hovey, KY, Wolfe from Asheville, NC. Sarah Hawke, his mother, invests in land for mining rights, Wolfe’s mom, Julia, ran boarding houses. Alms for Oblivion, though never excerpted, sounds much like Look Homeward, Angel: life in Hovey vs. life in Altamont. Hawke’s lover Frieda Winter and Wolfe’s Aline Bernstein share stockbroker husbands and work as scenic designers. Jeanne Green edits with the same eye toward commercial success as Max Perkins did. Both Hawke and Wolfe suffer fatal brain disease, Hawke from epilepsy, Wolfe from a migrating, pernicious form of tuberculosis. And both die young.

As they say, they don’t write them like Youngblood Hawke anymore: a novel as big, as bold, as energizing, and as heartbreaking as life itself. A novel not to be missed. c/w