by Kate Christensen; Doubleday, 2011; 311 pages; $25.95.
Kate Christensen’s most recent comedies of contemporary manners have had at their centers women who carry on despite being left dangling by the men in their lives, men who Christensen seems to leave in the background.
In her witty The Great Man, that man never even appears. In Trouble, two women hang onto each other for dear life, even as their men find ways to leave them. The surprise of The Astral, then, is that one of those Christensen men is the narrator of the book and that his movement toward a new life is at the book’s very large heart.
Harry Quirk is a poet rapidly approaching 58. His wife Luz, a nurse, has thrown him out of their top-floor residence in The Astral, a rose-colored apartment building in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Harry finds a room in a local flophouse, from which he bemoans the fact that Luz has destroyed his new manuscript (“an entire year of work, gone”) supposedly because some of the poems suggest to her an affair with Marion, Harry’s best friend, a woman still dealing with memories of her husband. Licking his wounds, Harry remarks, “I hadn’t even the intense pleasure of an illicit affair.”
His children — well, one of them — offers help, even a place to stay. Karina is gay and “freegan,” a woman who lives on the discards of those in her Brooklyn neighborhood. She enlists Harry in an attempt to save her brother, Hector, once a quietly dedicated student, from the Children of Hashem, a quasi-religious cult that has taken up residence on a rather large estate in Sag Harbor.
Oh, and his poetry lacks the greatness that Harry wishes it has. In fact, he is thought of as “a throwback, a nonentity, a noncontender” who writes “defunct lyrical, visceral rhymed verse.” His new work, an epic poem called The Astral, which he intends to be “a sort of modern-day, secular, personal Paradise Lost or Inferno,” isn’t going very well: “There was something false and self-exculpatory about the whole enterprise.”
The same must be said about his life.
Harry tries to make his disparate ends meet, even by accepting a job as an accountant in a Hasidic lumberyard, but what he discovers slowly and exquisitely, is his own failing, his unbelief, and he finally faces the shortcomings of his life. Only when he can accept his own limitations, can Harry Quirk start again.
The Astral is Kate Christensen at the pinnacle of her craft. It is an unashamedly bittersweet comedy of manners about the end of middle-age, rendered with wit and compassion for where we are now and where we will be.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.