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Review of The Astral

June 30, 2011

The AstralKate Christensen’s great new book, The Astral (Doubleday), revolves around poor Harry Quirk.  For decades he’s lived a comfortable life as a stay-at-home poet and husband to the tempestuous Luz.  They live in the rambling top-floor apartment of a building named the The Astral in the gentrifying neighborhood of Greenpoint Brooklyn.  Luz, a nurse, has always been the breadwinner so that Harry could sit home and craft his metered rhyming verse.  Together they raised two children.

The drama unfolds when the stars fall out of alignment and Luz kicks Harry out, rips up his poetry notebooks and throws his computer out the window.  She says it’s because she suspects Harry’s having an affair with his long-time friend Marion.  He’s not, but he doesn’t have much credibility since he had an affair years ago and his latest poems are somewhat incriminating.

His children have their own problems.  Harry’s daughter Karina is a lesbian freegan who forages for food in dumpsters.  Hector, his son, belongs to a Christian cult and is working his way up to being cult leader.
Harry fumbles around trying to find a job, a place to live and to make sense of his life and his crumbling marriage.  His poetry has fallen out of fashion so he has to face the fact that his creative days could be over.  Meanwhile, he is also trying to extract his son from the hands of the con artist who runs the cult while at the same time trying to make peace with his daughter.  So Harry drinks, he thinks, he plots, and he grovels until one day he has a grand epiphany.  Finally, Harry is able to see his life the way it really is, realize how he got there and begin to move forward.

Harry’s mid-life crisis makes for an entertaining, smart and humorous read as he tries to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife, save his children from themselves, and write new poetry.  The Brooklyn backdrop is thickly laid out in graphic detail behind Harry’s various quests.  Christensen’s greatest strength is her ability to probe the inner realms of the male mind with a sympathetic touch.  As far as having a male narrator, she admits that, “I like to write in a male voice as it gives me access to a wider range than a female voice.  Men can get away with saying more things and remain likable; they can embody more negative characteristics.  Boys will be boys and girls will be judged much more harshly.”  That’s genius!

In 2008, Christensen won the PEN/Faulkner prize for The Great Man.

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