Picks and Pans Review: Mr. Vertigo

UPDATED 08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Paul Auster

A 12-year-old boy is taught to fly by an aging impresario who plans to make a killing with a new novelty act. Sound far-fetched? Not in the masterful hands of Paul Auster. Like his previous novels (Leviathan, The Music of Chance), Mr. Vertigo is both parable and mystery—and the result is a rollicking tale of greed and redemption.

Walt Rawley is an orphan begging for nickels on the streets of 1920s St. Louis when he meets Master Yehudi, a two-bit huckster who promises to teach him to fly. Walt follows Master Yehudi to his farm in Kansas, where he meets his fellow housemates, Mother Sioux, a former bareback rider in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and Aesop, a deformed black boy. After a brief and hellish apprenticeship shoveling manure and plowing fields, Walt is eventually shown the promised land. "You're going to work hard, Walt," says Master Yehudi, "harder than you've ever worked before, but if you stick with it and do what I tell you, at the end of a few years you'll be able to fly. I swear it."

Walt does indeed take to the air, but as he reaches adulthood, this act is accompanied by crippling migraines. He faces a tough choice when he discovers that the only cure for his headaches—if he wishes to keep flying—is to sacrifice his sexuality. Auster's tale is more than a parable, and with Walt Rawley he has created more than an ordinary hero. A modern revision of Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Rawley is a moving, irritating, plucky character who will remain aloft in readers' memories. (Viking, $21.95)

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