HAND TO MOUTH
A Chronicle of Early Failure
Artistic failure, financial woes, and broken love are the subjects of Auster's wide-ranging philosophical memoir, a candid assessment of the demands and rewards of art, work, and money. Auster's (Mr. Vertigo, 1994; Leviathan, 1992; etc.) success provides an ironic subtext to this catalog of misery: The author of 14 books of fiction, poetry, essays, screenplays, and translations laughs last, since this putative chronicle of failure includes work that originally lacked an audience. That material, presented in three appendixes, includes a trio of one-act plays (one of which, Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, isn't bad); Action Baseball, a nifty game complete with cut-out playing cards that failed as a desperate get-rich-quick scheme; and Squeeze Play, a thinking man's mystery featuring a wise-cracking Ivy League gumshoe. All provide interesting footnotes to Auster's development as a novelist. The main attraction, though, is the long title essay, a bare-knuckles grapple with the choices he made during a rocky literary apprenticeship. The central problem, Auster writes, "was that I had no interest in leading a double life" like writers who "earn good money at legitimate professions" and write in their spare time. He took the old-fashioned approach, eschewing MFA programs (both as a student and teacher) to earn his chops in the school of hard knocks. He shipped out with the merchant marine, explored France and Ireland, won a few minor grants. But despite help from friends like Mary McCarthy (whose influence led to a memorable freelance gig translating a new Vietnamese constitution in 1973), Auster spent years of penury doing "literary hackwork" while his fiction went nowhere and his marriage foundered. Even an attempt to sell out ended with his publisher kaput and a detective novel languishing in a warehouse. Risk and failure--common themes in Auster's work--gain real-life urgency as autobiography. Required, inspiring reading for Auster-holics and aspiring writers.