Miami Herald // The Astral by Kate Christensen
Harry Quirk, the appropriately named hero of Kate Christensen’s engaging sixth novel, is a “malnourished string bean of a poet eligible for AARP” and increasingly out of his element in his gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. His wife Luz has just kicked him out of their apartment, located in a building called The Astral. Perhaps their relationship was never meant to be, considering that they met in a hospital and on their first date he asked her, over Chinese food, “You’re insane, do you know that?”
Luz has found evidence of Harry’s extramarital activities with his friend Marion — or so she believes — in a notebook of ideas and unpublished poems, which she promptly destroyed. His attitude has also confirmed her suspicions. “I had been feeling lost and alone in recent years,” he reports. “like a failure, a has-been. Marion had just lost her husband. We were pals, comrades, drinking buddies in our hour of mutual need and sadness. But I had not touched her, nor she me, except for the usual hug and kiss hello.” But there’s no persuading Luz of his innocence.
Harry ends up crashing on Marion’s sofa, while negotiating an uneasy relationship with his lesbian, freegan daughter Karina and planning to visit his son Hector, who has recently been re-named Bard at a commune where they purported to “live humbly and simply, sharing everything as the first-century Christians had.” In short, his story is that of an old-fashioned man in a rapidly changing world over which he has no control.
Even a simple visit to the neighborhood donut shop becomes a trial when a passing compliment to the Polish girl behind the counter gets him beat up by another customer.
“One meaty hand squeezed both of my bony ones, convincing me to release my grip on his windpipe. The other meaty hand punched me full in the face and picked up the metal napkin dispenser and slammed it into my eye. I was pulled off him by someone very firm and purposeful, and then my enemy and I were both in handcuffs being led out of the donut shop by two cops who clearly would have preferred to stay there all day.”
The reason for the assault is never totally clear to Harry, but then again few things are. He gets booked, thrown in a cell with his assailant, and issued a court summons, all which make it perfectly obvious to those around him that he’s not very capable of looking out for himself. Left to his own devices, he begins to write an epic poem titled The Astral, intended to be “a sort of modern-day, secular, personal Paradise Lost orInferno, but it wasn’t going well.”
Yet Christensen doesn’t stop there. She amps up the tension, suspense, and pathos until it feels like the book could ignite in your hands. She’s a spectacular author who’s only beginning to get the attention she so richly deserves, such as the 2008 PEN/Faulkner for The Great Man. Her style is unique in that her work is more based on fascinating and real — maybe too real — characters rather than upon on the same three or four basic plots we’ve seen a million times. And Harry Quirk is one of her greatest creations. (I will admit that I’m also quite partial to Hugo, the creepy hero of The Epicure’s Lament.) Christensen is amazing at capturing male voices and desires, particularly the ones that don’t often get aired outside Philip Roth novels.
I can’t wait to see how Christensen’s work develops over the coming decades. She has the makings of a major American author. Her storytelling derives organically from a firm grasp of characterization and how people work, flaws and all. The Astral, artfully composed and emotionally tender, is evidence of true literary genius.