Paul Auster’s Moon Palace tells the old story—of an alienated youth struggling to understand how he may belong in a difficult time and place—with an intelligent sympathy that renews its pertinence. Marco Stanley Fogg, Auster’s narrator-hero, is an orphan, a condition whose possibilities for fiction Marco himself fully appreciates. He has never known who his father was, his mother died when he was eleven, and his Uncle Victor, a musician who took care of him after that, died when Marco was an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 1960s. As his name trebly asserts, Marco is also a born traveler, someone who has to find his place in the world rather than inherit it. His fate, he bravely says as his story begins, at first seemed simply to be to “live dangerously,” to plunge into a future that his past could not predict. But it is the past that is written largest in his account of his life between 1969 and 1972, a time that almost killed him.
Left by his uncle’s death with barely enough money to finish college, he disdains to ask for scholarships or loans or work, just makes it to graduation, and then becomes one of the homeless, sleeping in parks or cheap movie houses, finding food in garbage cans, relying on occasional handouts from pitying strangers. His idea is to stop “living through words,” themselves a form of inheritance, and to abandon himself to “the chaos of the world” in the hope of learning its “secret harmony.” These aspirations are not very surprising in a young intellectual like Marco, and faint strains of “secret harmony” may be audible when, after he is rejected on psychiatric grounds from the draft, he is rescued from illness and starvation by two loyal and loving friends.
Recuperating, he finds a job as companion and reader to Thomas Effing, a crippled, blind, and very eccentric octogenarian. Effing is a fantasist on a grand scale, boasting, for example, that his telekinetic powers caused the New York blackout of 1965. But his account of his past fascinates and gradually convinces Marco. Effing claims that he was, long ago, a rich avant-garde artist named Julian Barber, who, after marrying a frigid society girl and fathering a son, ran off to the West in 1916 to become an American painter. Stranded and starving in the wilds of southern Utah, he found a cave stocked with food, killed the outlaw Gresham brothers, whose hideout it was, and appropriated their loot, learned to paint in a way he could respect, and eventually reached San Francisco where (thanks to Gresham’s law?) he made another fortune by investing his doubly stolen money.
Fear of exposure then drove this model capitalist to cover in Chinatown, where he squandered some of the money on drugs, gambling, and women, and was crippled for life by a mugger. In 1920 he sailed to Paris, stayed there until war came in 1939, and then returned to New …