Saturday, July 09, 2011


The Astral, Kate Christensen, Doubleday, 2011, 320 pp

In my review of Christensen's previous book, Trouble, I said that I hoped The Astral would be better. And it was!

Harry Quirk, mid-list poet, Brooklyn dweller, father of two grown children, and rejected husband of Luz, introduces himself: "I was hungry and in need of a bath and a drink. At my back thronged the dark ghosts of Greenpoint, feeding silently off the underwater lake of spilled oil that lay under it all, the polyfluorocarbons from the industrial warehouses. I had named this place the End of the World years ago, when it was even more polluted, hopeless wasteland, but it still fit."

After some thirty years of apartment life in the Astral, a huge redbrick fortress complete with brownstone arches, three-sided bay windows and corner towers, Harry and Luz have imploded as a married couple. Luz is the overbearing, pious, yet adoring mother Harry lost as a child. Harry stands in for the ne'er-do-well father who deserted Luz's family when she was eleven. They have raised a daughter who is a lesbian, freegan Dumpster diver and a son who emerged from his teen years of drug taking and social ineptitude to join a fundamentalist Christian cult.

It was not the plethora of modern issues that insinuated The Astral into my mind and heart. It was the characters and the familiar heartbreaking story of two people who have built a life out of propping each other up, a veritable fortress of a marriage, only to have its fatal structural faults bring it crashing into ruin.

Harry has a best friend, Marion, a photographer. They met as young artists newly arrived in New York City and enjoy a deep understanding, similar to what Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had, but have never engaged in sexual intimacy. Luz, having always been jealous of their easy camaraderie, decided they were lovers after reading Harry's latest cycle of sonnets. She threw his laptop out the window and Harry out of her life. She will not be reasoned with despite Harry's attempts to explain the truth.

Kate Christensen's insights into the psyche of a middle-aged banished husband are astonishing. As in her earlier novels, she brings the world of artists alive and creates a sense of place with the ease of a master chef preparing a gourmet meal. In Harry Quirk however, she has surpassed herself as a writer, giving glimpses of love, sex and friendship from a mid-fifty year old male perspective that feel as true as anything written by Philip Roth or John Updike.

Perhaps in this age of longer lifespans, the coming of age novel needs to be balanced with the coming of maturity story. Christensen's affair of the human heart includes friendship, sexuality, parenthood and even religion. Harry, an atheist since his Catholic mother's death, investigates the true believer yearnings of his son and in this author's hands, even the cult phenomenon gets a sensitive treatment.

Over the period of less than a year, we watch Harry come to a tenuous understanding of himself, his wife, and his children as he just begins to look at the future. Along the way, my own life came into clearer view. That is what good fiction does.

(The Astral is available by order in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. I just finished the novel and I loved it almost despite myself. The blurb does make it sound pretentious, but it's very beautifully written and even surprising in places.

    I wrote a full review here:

  2. Thanks for your comment. I like your review. Especially the look you take at our beliefs being open to compromise as life goes on; our beliefs being masks. Perhaps we accrue these in order to connect with others, losing our true selves a bit in the process.