cover image Hand to Mouth

Hand to Mouth

Paul Auster. Henry Holt & Company, $25 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-5406-4

Auster, the highly talented novelist (New York Trilogy), poet and filmmaker (Smoke) was not always as successful as he is now, and the title section of this oddly conceived book (most of which is comprised of Auster's unpublished work) is a penetrating memoir of a young writer desperately trying to make his way. Seldom has the helpless obsession, utter marginality and crushing poverty of the unsuccessful author been better conveyed than here; even the work Auster did purely for the money, forsaking his literary ambitions, didn't come off, and the memoir ends with recognition nowhere in sight. The rest of the volume, made up of what the publisher coyly calls ""three of the longest footnotes in literary history,"" shows us some of the material that failed. There are three short plays (the kind that get staged at off-off-Broadway theaters); an ingenious card game that simulates baseball (an Auster passion), which, surprisingly, has never been marketed; and a brief but absorbing private-eye novel, Squeeze Play. As Auster justly remarks, ""As an example of the genre, it seemed no worse than many others I had read, much better than some."" It is a noirish tale of the death of a baseball idol with a strange obsession, and apart from some heavy-handed flip dialogue and rote violence, it broods along stylishly enough. (The novel was ultimately published by Avon, netting Auster a sum in the high three figures.) As a cautionary tale for writers, this is a superb book; as an addition to an oeuvre, it's on the slight side. Author tour. (Sept.)