by Paul Auster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first read Mr Vertigo in the nineties, but picking it up again recently and reading the first page I was totally hooked. (Coincidentally Man on Wire was on TV the other day and they are almost the same stories told in different mediums.) Mr Vertigo has one of the best opening lines ever: ‘I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water. The man in the black clothes taught me how to do it and I’m not going to pretend I learned the trick overnight…’
It is the story of Walter Rawley ‘Walt the Wonderboy’ – a smart mouthed orphan on the streets of 1930’s St Louis and also our narrator for this fantastical old-fashioned tall-tale. On the very first page he takes up with the mysterious magician and showman Master Yehudi who makes him a deal that: ‘If I haven’t taught you to fly by your thirteenth birthday you can chop my head off with an axe.’ (this is also an amazing hook line for the first page of a book.) The rest of the story chronicles his adventures as the master teaches him to fly and they go on a vaudeville tour of America that starts in triumph and ends in disaster.
This first section of the book where Walt is learning to fly is totally engrossing, and beautiful heart in the mouth writing almost as good as you imagine the first flight is for Walt. It’s a great mix of magic realism and Huck Finn and I love the fact that Walt has to put himself through such hardships in order to achieve his goal, it gives the story a gritty edge as opposed to the airy-fairy flying of Peter Pan. Yet there is still a sense of a young child’s wonder and imagination in a world where anything is possible if you believe it is and this is mixed with the harsh realities of the time – the racism, crime, poverty and the Wall Street crash, albeit some of these effect Walt more than others.
The second (and less interesting) half of the book chronicles Walt’s life as a grown up first as a big shot gangster and then as the usual everyman with ups and downs. It is only as an old man that he is finally able to come to terms with his failure and successes as a human being and reflect on his childhood. I found the very last section very moving especially Walt’s last thoughts on what humans are capable of. I suppose his flight is a metaphor for the height of human achievements, learning a skill to such a high ability that you transcend the mundane and it becomes sublime and enlightening, what it is like to lose that ability – that brilliance and realise that you are just an average Joe like everyone else, but how there is always a chance, however slim, to regain it if you believe.