"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 Hunters 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 in."
So begins Kate Christensen's evocative sixth novel, The Astral. The spine of her story is the dissolution of a marriage as seen through the eyes of the husband, who's been thrown out of his home by his wife of several years after she suspects he's having an affair behind her back. Christensen says in the press materials that she structured the book "according to the rhythms and atmosphere of a classic detective novel: love is dead -- who killed it?" The Astral comes to a close, like a good mystery, "when all the facts have come to light." The book does in fact read like a thriller clothed in beautifully crafted prose. Its title refers to an actual apartment building in Greenpoint, built in the late 1800's, which Christensen lived near for many years. The protagonist, Harry Quirk, is based on men she saw walking by in the neighborhood, "energetic, shambling slightly down-at-heels men of a certain age who walk the Greenpoint streets looking solitary and full of stories." Brooklyn is as real a character in the book as any of the human characters; Greenpoint is "a neighborhood where it's simultaneously 1876, 1933, 1958, and 1974, and where even the present feels sepia and eternal," according to Christensen.
The Astral is about the death of a marriage and, eventually, the rebirth of a life. It's about Harry Quirk's struggle to keep on an even keel when his only love and caretaker has kicked him to the curb. It's about his journey from a coddled, cared for, semi-known poet to a lost soul to a man who eventually sees what's really happening to him, and why. And it's real; we know these people, we live with them, we work with them, we've lent them a cup of sugar or a quarter for the laundry room.
Quirk has two full-grown children; his daughter is a Dumpster-diving freegan who owns her own home elsewhere in Brooklyn and his son is involved in a religious cult in Sag Harbor led by a charismatic woman with a prison record, which brings its own heaping spoonful of crazymaking drama. His best friend is a woman named Marion who has always understood him completely and whom his wife has never trusted. Another fascinating, pivotal plot point involves a psychotherapist who is the sounding board for just about all of the people in Quirk's circle of friends, including, eventually, his heartbroken estranged wife.
Harry is at his absolute nadir when he goes for a drink in the middle of the day in a local bar, because he has nothing but time. The bartender actually recognizes his name, knows his byline, and cheerfully informs him that one of her friends is a fan of his work. "Her lit-up, excited expression was quite possibly the best thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life, besides the birth of my kids and maybe my wedding day," writes Christensen. Harry begins to panic -- he's way too fragile for this -- and he knows based on past experience it can't end well. "The day had reached its zenith, its apogee, along with the sun. From here, it would be all downhill..." He ends up stopping the bartender in mid-text to her friend and leaves to go home and take a nap.
The moment when Harry realizes his marriage is well and truly over washes over him like a revelation, a rebirth. By the end of the story, he's examined his relationship with his estranged wife Luz over and over again, finally wearing it smooth like a worry stone. And the book is as much about Harry's love for Luz as it is about Brooklyn itself, which is as dusky and romantic in these pages as an old photograph in an antique frame. Manhattan doesn't exist here, it's not even on the same planet. "The next morning dawned in Greenpoint dawned as it did everywhere else in the world, but maybe not as poignantly or as fleetingly. The low sun splashed a silky tenderness onto the grimy building facades and over the trash-heaped, rubbled empty lots along Franklin and then Kent. In the early morning stillness, the air was almost fresh, almost breathable, as if strong nighttime winds had magically scoured it."
The Astral is a work of art, a prose poem, and a finely told tale. Christensen won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award with her novel The Great Man, and deserves equally high praise for this tender, aching marvel of a book.