Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood is home to thriving communities of Mexican and Chinese immigrants, but one could miss that reading Paul Auster's eponymous novel.
In "Sunset Park," Auster is more interested in the neighborhood's vast semi-industrial stretches peppered with nondescript houses, all the better to endow the proceedings with an enforced sense of dreariness.
It's probably a good thing then, that very little of the action takes place in Sunset Park, where an unlikely group of squatters nurse their emotional wounds in a ramshackle house abutting the massive Greenwood Cemetery.
The book opens with the main character, Miles Heller, living in Miami and working as part of a crew that cleans out foreclosed houses.
Miles distinguishes himself from the other working stiffs by taking photographs of the objects left behind, but other than that, he's a strangely flat character: "twenty-eight years old, and to the best of his knowledge he has no ambition."
The son of a prominent publisher and famous actress, Miles has been kicking around at various odd jobs for the last 7 1/2 years since dropping out of college and cutting himself off from his family as punishment for something that probably wasn't his fault.
He is compelled to circle back to New York when complications involving his underage Cuban-American girlfriend, Pilar, force him to leave Miami and bide his time for several months until she reaches 18.
Along the way, Miles reconnects with his family and generally charms people to the point that a better title might have been "Everybody Loves Miles." The reader has to take Auster's word for this, though, because little that Miles does demonstrates much actual charm.
The novel is thick with atmosphere and for the most part a pleasure to read, but it doesn't really develop beyond a series of character sketches that hang together only loosely.
"Sunset Park" steers clear of the metafiction and other literary devices Auster has employed in the past, but while he sets all sorts of plot details in motion, they rarely go anywhere.
Miles, who has become a teetotaler, decides to have a drink to take the pressure off a meeting with his mother, no problem. His father feels some resentment toward Miles after they are eventually reunited, but then just as easily puts it aside.
That Miles' closest friend, Bing, has been keeping his family up-to-date about his whereabouts for as long as he's been on the lam seems like a potential conflict waiting to explode, but it gets back to Miles and never becomes an issue.
More disturbingly, the two women who share the squat with Miles are much more fully realized characters than Pilar, upon whom much of the book hinges.
Again and again, characters are shocked by Pilar's youth upon meeting her, only to be reassured by her deep intelligence. But aside from her bookishness, good grades and the odd fact that she requires Miles make love to her in the "funny hole" rather than her "mommy hole" as a form of birth control, she does little to demonstrate this remarkable intelligence and instead borders on stereotype - the wise Latina.
With so little momentum, it's surprising that the ending comes as a sock in the jaw. When the dust clears, though, one is left to ask: What point is there deflating a story about a group of people already so deflated?