'The Astral': A Tedious Ode To Breaking Up

The Astral, by Kate Christensen
The Astral
By Kate Christensen
Hardcover, 312 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

Kate Christensen's sixth novel, The Astral, charts the long and whining road toward a new life for Harry Quirk, a down-and-out poet whose fierce, staunchly Catholic wife of 30 years has thrown him out of their home in the legendary Astral apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Convinced that Harry has been cheating on her with his recently widowed best friend, Luz has gone ballistic. She destroyed his laptop and the notebooks containing his latest poems, a cycle of sonnets about imaginary lovers she's convinced are real.

The Astral charts Harry's initially wretched adventures in his forced new singledom, as he wanders through the streets and bars of his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, landing in a series of dicey situations, bleak rentals and comfortingly repetitive jobs. His family and friends provide little solace. His son has been sucked into a fundamentalist cult on Long Island that has named him their messiah. His daughter, a bleeding-heart Freegan, thinks she can solve the world's troubles, including those of her family. A rich friend is generous with advice and employment, provided Harry feeds his "emotionally vampiric nature" with piteous bloodletting.

Although he insists that he's innocent, everyone but Harry recognizes that innocence is besides the point. The point — which analytic Harry articulates often in his saga of being forced to start over at 57 — is that Harry "needed to be propped up" in both his poetry and his life. "Perhaps I needed someone else's external, imposed will, because internally, I had none," he comments. In his writing, Harry says, "I shackled myself to the most ironclad poetic forms." In his life, he willingly bound himself to Luz, a Mexican-American nurse with a nonnegotiable nature. Long the family's principal breadwinner, Luz has withdrawn her support because she wasn't getting what she wanted in return — Harry's unwavering devotion.

Kate Christensen is the author of six novels. In 2008, she was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Great Man. i i

Kate Christensen is the author of six novels. In 2008, she was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Great Man. Ronnie Farley/ hide caption

itoggle caption Ronnie Farley/
Kate Christensen is the author of six novels. In 2008, she was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Great Man.

Kate Christensen is the author of six novels. In 2008, she was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Great Man.

Ronnie Farley/

If that seems a simplistic reduction of a complex marital dynamic, it's one that Harry makes himself — repeatedly. As anyone who has gone through a painful breakup knows, obsessive dissection is a primary byproduct. Unfortunately, it's no more fun to read about than to experience, and Christensen, such a sharp writer in novels that include Trouble (2009) and The Epicure's Lament (2004), does little to alleviate the tedium of Harry's doldrums. Even Harry comments, "Here I was, going around in these same circles again with no way out." When we finally get to his showdown with Luz, it is woefully anticlimactic because we've already heard it all multiple times.

Christensen has written about artists before. The Great Man (2007), which won the PEN/Faulkner award, featured a vibrant portrait of three women in their 70s and 80s who were liberated by the death of "the great man" who had overshadowed them in his life — a painter who resisted 20th-century abstraction the way Harry resists free-form verse. But Christensen fails to give us a convincing sense of Harry's talent, and when he confesses that he has "lost the egomaniacal steam that powered the whole enterprise," we're as indifferent as he seems to be.

Like his late-lamented, tightly constructed sonnets, Harry's tale begins and ends in the same place, with him staring into the toxic waters of Newtown Creek. Although Harry makes some emotional headway over the course of the novel, The Astral, like this sadly polluted estuary, feels dismayingly stagnant.

Excerpt: 'The Astral'

The Astral, by Kate Christensen
The Astral
By Kate Christensen
Hardcover, 312 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $25.95

Chapter One

Toxic water streamed with gold like the belly of a turning fish: sunset over Newtown Creek. Tattered pinkish-black clouds blew overhead in the March wind. The water below me rippled with tendons and cowlicks. Just across the brief waterway were the low mute banks of Hunter's Point, church spire, low-slung old warehouses. An empty barge made its way down the creek toward the East River and the long glittering skyscrapery isle. I stood behind the chain link fence the city had slapped up to keep the likes of me from jumping in.

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 an even more polluted, hopeless wasteland, but it still fit.

As I stood staring out through the webbing of fence, my mind cast itself through the rivulets of my own lost verse. I netted little flashes of lines and phrases, "your ocean breath in my conch-ear's cochlea"and "the weeping underside of your demonic knee,"but they all sounded dead to me now, these fragments and snippets. All I could really hear was Luz, Luz, Luz like the pulsing feeble signals of a dying heart. Heartache was a physical thing, a pain in my chest, a sort of recoiling tension with an ache like a bruise. There was a withheld quality to my breathing lately, as if I had been sucker-punched and was waiting to get my wind back, but no wind came. I could remember whole published poems, swaths of long-ago verse, but if these new, destroyed verses still existed in my brain, they fled from the webbing of my memory like darting schools of tiny fish, scooching away the instant before capture.

I turned away from this butt-end of waterfront warehouses and walked back the way I'd come, along Manhattan Avenue, past the flophouse where I lived now, bare mattresses piled in the front window. I passed junk shops full of old radios, used dolls, and cowboy shirts, Goldsholle and Garfinkel Paints, Mexican bodegas, liquor stores, the abandoned hulk of JK Restaurant Supplies with its twisted metal grate, small markets with root vegetables in boxes along the sidewalk, butchers' shops festooned with loops of kielbasy. I trundled through the intersection at Greenpoint Avenue, the dingy McDonalds, defeated Starbucks, opposing Arab newsstands, and on to the old Associated Supermarket with its insanely sexy Polish girls pouting at nothing as they rang up your groceries. The outdoor clock at the Smolenski Funeral Home was permanently stopped at 6:30, both hands pointed straight down to hell.

I hung a right off Manhattan Avenue and aimed myself toward the glowing neon sign in the window of Marlene's, one of the last local old-man bars. It still had rusty tin ceilings, original wainscoting, two-dollar drafts in small, icy mugs, and moose antlers. Its one concession to the new millennium was a flat screen the size of a small car.

"Hello there, Harry,"said George as I came in. The most deadpan voice I have ever heard. If he has any feelings that cause him to lie awake wracked with turmoil in the small hours of the morning, he's not telling. What he'll do is pour you a grudging whiskey finger for three bucks. Never a double; that's not the way they do things at Marlene's. But you can smoke there; it's a social club, and twenty bucks buys a year's membership. A handful of local cops are members: it's all above-board.

George has a pocked face the color of grey chalk, a thin colorless wavelet of hair pasted to his scalp, and small protruding eyes. He has a day job at the Acme Fish warehouse on Gem Street, but he moonlights, so to speak, at Marlene's, for the social life it affords him; otherwise he would have none, he once confided in me with endearing frankness. Marlene is his sister.

I parked myself on a stool midway down the empty bar. George handed me a whiskey and I swallowed it whole and felt a little warmer. My mother was Irish, my father English, but whiskey unites my opposing factions; I like the smokier, pricier, older single malts, but the cheap blended brands do the job just the same.

"How are things, George?"I asked as he set my second whiskey before me.

"Never better,"he said. "Yourself, Harry?"

I looked him in the eye. "Never better."

Marlene's opens every day before noon and closes in the very early morning, and is almost always populated by its regulars, most notably several local women who park themselves in a row at the bar and settle in for the duration like birds on a wire, smoking and kibitzing and getting shitfaced. But here George and I were tonight with the place to ourselves, separated by a barrier of scuffed wood, he serving, me drinking, a scenario that plays itself out everywhere, all the time, two lonely men doing some manner of business together, not quite making eye contact.

"Couldn't find the remote the other night,"said George. "Looked for it everywhere, all over my apartment. High and low. Even tried the freezer."

"What were you watching?"

"One of my programs,"he said. "The one with the doctors. So I'm looking for it and the phone rings. I go to pick up the phone and press the remote and say, Hello? So there was the remote. Then I couldn't find the phone. Finally found it on top of the fridge where I left it when I was looking for the remote. Sometimes it seems like the world is playing a joke."

"And it's not always funny,"I said. "By the way, Luz threw me out."

"What? She did? When was this?"He looked truly shocked. Long-term marriages apparently appear as insuperable and permanent to others as geographical formations; when one dissolves, it's as if Fuji or Fiji had disappeared overnight.

"Not too long ago,"I said.

"Well,"he said, "that's tough. That's just tough. So where you living now?"

"I'm renting a room in the hotel down by Newtown Creek."

He cocked his head and set another whiskey in front of me. "This one's on me."

"Thanks, George."I lifted my glass. "'The feeblest slippage of a seismic shift/ Will overturn the carriage on the cobblestones.'"That was from one of my old poems, the ones that were as accessible to my memory as my own name.

"Sure,"he said. He was used to my delusions that I was the neighborhood bard. He folded his arms and looked down at the scuffed surface of the bar. "Those cobblestone bricks down on West Street are made of wood, not clay, did you know that?"

"Near Noble Street,"I said. "You can see the tree rings in them if you look closely. I wrote a poem about it. 'Concentric frets fraught with letters from old clouds."

"I was afraid they'd catch fire when the Terminal Market went up a few years back."

"Me too,"I said. "I kept thinking, if the wind were blowing inland, the whole neighborhood would catch. It would have happened so fast – a piece of burning ash falling just so."

I had watched the grand old warehouse burn with Luz beside me, both of our faces pressed to the same windowpane.

George shot me a look. "You live in the Astral,"he said.

"Used to."

"That's right,"said George, the tip of his tongue swiping at his upper lip. "Maybe you're better off out of that place. I hear there's mushrooms growing in the bathrooms and bedbugs living in the furniture. I hear the super has a photo studio in the basement where he takes pictures of young Asian girls."He said this last without a whiff of salaciousness. George seems to have excised the sexual part of his brain as a way of keeping his life simple. Smart man.

The door opened, and Karina entered and charged down the bar toward me. "Hi, Dad!"she said. "I thought you'd be here. I wish you would get a cell phone."

"Why do I need one?"I asked as she kissed me on the cheek. "You know where to find me."

"I'll have a draft, please,"she told George, then said to me, "I've been so worried about you. How are you?"

"Never better,"I said hopefully, but I already knew she wasn't having any of it, and anyway, I was flattered by her concern. My daughter had just turned twenty-five, but unlike other girls her age, she was totally uninterested in anything beyond a narrow range of severely ascetic passions, the most intense of these being dumpster diving, colloquially known as Freeganism. She regularly foraged for and redistributed quantities of garbage, or rather, "perfectly good food and clothing"to "the poor,"of which I was now, come to think of it, one. In addition to trying to save the world from its proliferation of waste and to save the poor from deprivation, she has never been able to shake the notion that she's solely responsible for the well-being of her family.

Karina's coloring is like mine, Irish/English, fair-haired, fair-skinned, rather than her olive-skinned, black-haired, dark-eyed Mexican mother's, but her face looks so much like Luz's – oval shape, large eyes, blunt nose, a quiveringly focused expression like an alert animal's – it pierced my heart just then to look at her.

"Come on,"she said. "Tell the truth."

"The truth,"I told her as she took a swig of bitter foam, "is that life goes on, like it or not, till you croak."

"Oh Dad,"she said without appearing to have heard me, "I wish you would come and live at my place. That hotel is a death trap. Guys knife each other in the hallway."

"Thank you,"I said with a brief internal quailing. Had it come to this, that my own daughter thought I was incapable of taking care of myself? Of course it had; she had thought that since the day she was born, and she was right. "Thank you, Karina, but really, I'm all right."

"I have that extra little room,"she said, bossy and insistent.

"When is the last time you heard from your brother?"

"Hector? He never calls me."

"I haven't been able to contact him for a while. The only number I have for him is some sort of public telephone, and no one seems to be willing to go and fetch him when I call. He's always in some sort of meeting or working or asleep."

"Why are you trying to call him? You never call me."

"Because I'm worried about him, and I'm not worried about you."

"You can't call just to say hi? Look, I came all the way over to Greenpoint to track you down. And Hector can't even bother to come to the friggin phone."

"I'm worried about him,"I repeated, "and I'm not worried about you."

She laughed. "Okay, okay. But come on! He's probably just busy."She took another sip of beer. "Dad, please come and stay at my place. Please. You're living among junkies and vagrants and lunatics. It's dangerous."

"I like it there,"I said. "It suits my purposes for now. I don't want to move all the way to Crown Heights. That's not my neighborhood. I don't know anyone there, and it's too far from Marlene's. But I thank you for the offer."

"Then please get a cell phone. I have a heap of castoff phones in a drawer, so all you need is a cheap monthly plan. Or pay as you go."

"I don't have any money,"I said. "Have you seen your mother lately?"

"I just came from there. She needed help getting rid of some things."

"My things,"I said without inflection.

"Well, she says you don't want them."

"I want them,"I said, "to stay right where they are, waiting for me to live among them again."

This put an end to our conversation for a moment. Behind me on the enormous flat screen, a coifed Latina in a blue jacket looked directly into the camera and with plush red lips intoned the goings-on of today's world with cool, sultry authority. She reminded me of Luz. But everything reminded me of Luz right now, even the moose antlers above the bar. They made me think of our twentieth-anniversary trip; there had been moose antlers over our bed in the Adirondacks cabin we'd rented for a week. Luz had asked me to take them down and put them in a closet, or better yet, outside where they belonged. They were disgusting, she said; they were cruel. That I hadn't done so, on the grounds that it was not my place to redecorate property belonging to others, was ranked thereafter in her hypothetical marital black book as one of my offenses. At least, I had always assumed it was hypothetical. Maybe she had written it all down somewhere. If so, I wondered what she would do with her compendium now that it was all over. Sell it at a stoop sale? Publish it as an anti-marriage manifesto?

"Oh, well,"I said, "never mind about that. Will you come with me to visit Hector tomorrow?"

Karina lifted up her glass and looked into her beer as if it were piss, then set it down again. "I have a lot to do tomorrow."

"Come with me,"I said. "The garbage will wait."

"It's not that. I have a deadline. I'm applying for a grant. It's going to take all day because I spent this afternoon tracking my parents down and making sure they were all right."

I said before I could stop myself, "So your mother is all right."

"Of course she is,"said my daughter. "She'd be all right in a nuclear war. But underneath, you know."

"I know,"I said. I was too sad to say any more.

George had moved down to the far end of the bar and was concentrating on the TV news, or seeming to, while he busied himself with a pinkie fingertip, pulling wax from his ear. I motioned to him, caught his eye, pointed to my whisky glass. He nodded and made his way down the bar with the bottle.

"Dad, I think this whole thing is horrible,"said Karina. "I'm not taking sides, I swear, I love you both, and it's none of my business. But is it true you're involved with Marion? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know."

"Is that what your mother told you?"

"Well, it's classic. Men usually have affairs with the women they're closest to. Their female friends, their wives' sisters or best friends, their co-workers, their friends' wives..."

To mask my horror that Luz would tell our daughter this, I grinned at Karina. "How do you know so much about men's extramarital affairs? You're a lesbian. And you're not married."

She shook her head at me and waited for my answer.

"No,"I said clearly, nodding my thanks at George for pouring me an unusually generous shot, at least three drops more than usual, "I am not having an affair. Not with anyone. And definitely not with Marion."Looking up to stare with half-tipsy self-righteousness into the middle distance, I caught George's eye. He was gazing at me, poker-faced, but I thought I caught a glimmer of amused sympathy somewhere in his left cheek, which twitched slightly.

"George,"I said, "my wife has gone completely batshit. She ripped up my poetry notebooks and threw my computer out the window and kicked me out of our apartment."

"She said you were writing love poems, hundreds of them,' said Karina, "and they weren't to her."

"They weren't written to anyone,"I said. "Not anyone real."

"She seems to think the person they were written to was Marion. She said it was obvious you've been in love with her forever. She said, also, that she knew it already, she's known it for years; the poems just confirmed it."

"Those were my private notebooks,"I said. "I've been falsely accused by someone who trespassed in my personal property. She spied on me. She came to a false conclusion and will not let me explain."

"She said she's through. She doesn't want to hear your excuses and lies."

"And she destroyed my work,"I said. "Completely wrecked it. It's poetry, Karina. It's invented. All the women I was writing to are imaginary. None of them is Marion."

"She said when that book is published she'll be publicly shamed."

"No one is going to publish them, probably."

"You don't know that."

"This is all just nuts. Oh damn it all to hell."

"Don't cry, Dad. I'm sure she'll come around, she's just a little crazy right now."

"I am not crying,"I said. I cried all the time lately.

"I think you should wait a week or two, let her cool off."

"I hope she hasn't said anything to Marion,"I said, rubbing my eyes.

"They had a long talk yesterday. She went over to Marion's. She was there for like an hour and a half. Marion told her there's nothing going on."

My heart thudded with hope. "And?"

"Mom didn't buy a word of it. She told me that Marion's behavior start to finish was completely disingenuous. Marion denied everything, and tried to comfort Mom, which of course only pissed her off more."

"Oh, Jesus,"I said. "I have to go."I pulled some bills out of my pocket. I was too flummoxed to see how much it was. Karina covered my hand with her own and handed George a twenty.

"Keep the change,"she said to him.

"Thank you very much,"said George. "You take care."

I put on my wool pea jacket and watch cap.

"Don't let the bastards get you down,"George called after my receding back.

"They already have,"I called back to him as I barreled out the door.

Karina walked with me along the dark, windy sidewalk. She is as tiny and sparrow-boned as Luz, and I am as spindly, tall and long-legged as Ichabod Crane, so she practically had to hold on to my flapping coattails to keep up, but my girl has always been a stickler, like a burr.

"Go home," I said. "Work on your grant application. Don't waste any more time on your crazy old parents."

"I am going home,"she panted. "I'm heading for the train. I wish Mom would believe you."

"Well, she won't."

"She must have some reason to think such a thing."

"Don't get into the middle of this,"I said.

"You won't come with me? My place is warm and the room is free."

We stopped to face each other on the corner of Norman Avenue. I bent down, took Karina's face in both my hands, and kissed her on her icy little nose. "Good luck with the grant,"I said. "Let me know when you can visit Hector with me. Leave a message at my hotel, they might give it to me, you never know."

"You call me,"she said.

Excerpted from The Astral by Kate Christensen. Copyright 2011 by Kate Christensen. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday.

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