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TIMBUKTU by Paul Auster

TIMBUKTU

By Paul Auster

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-5407-3
Publisher: Henry Holt

A slender doggy tale from Auster, who lately seems more concerned with providing product (and making movies) than matching the high standards of his earlier literary work (for example, Leviathan, 1992). This newest fiction, written from a dog’s point of view, smells suspiciously like a bid for domestic bestsellerdom. The sappy opening flirts with kitsch, but Auster’s light, transparent, fluid prose redeems it somewhat, particularly after we meet Mr. Bones’s master. Willy Christmas is a logomaniacal drunk who lost his mind in 1968 while a student at Columbia, where he cultivated an image as an “outlaw poet” and indulged heavily in mind-altering drugs. A Brooklyn public-school prodigy nurtured by his high- school English teacher (shades of Henry Roth), Willy was born William Gurevitch but changed his named after Santa Claus spoke through the TV set and convinced him to pursue an itinerant life as a do-gooder. Wandering across the country with Mr. Bones, Willy veers between being a “bedraggled, demented pain in the ass” and, when he’s in his right mind, acting as Santa’s saintly helper. He has also scribbled in 74 notebooks over the last 23 years and, fearing the end, takes Mr. Bones with him to Baltimore in hopes of handing dog and notebooks over to his long-lost teacher. Auster’s portrait of this latter-day Joe Gould takes a sharp turn into mush with Willy’s demise. Mr. Bones spends a season with a lonely Chinese boy, then finds a loving home (complete with pretty Mom and adorable kids) in suburban Virginia, where he ends his days dreaming of Timbuktu—his notion of an afterlife. Loyal Auster readers may feel betrayed by this slim novel, which contains little that would put off readers of shlock in the Nicholas Sparks/Robert James Waller vein. The wordplay is embarrassingly commonplace (dog/God, Santa/Satan), and the dog jokes are TV-quality. Shockingly bad, especially for someone of Auster’s stature.