Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure by Paul Auster

Henry Holt 1997 449 pp. $25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


As the title indicates, this book is about money and survival. As an autobiography tracing the early years of a now-successful author, itís more about the virtue of persistence.

Hand to Mouth consists of four parts, an autobiography of the authorís youth and young adulthood; a collection of three plays; a description, with graphic images, of Action Baseball, a game Auster invented; and the text of his first novel, the pseudonymously published Squeeze Play.

In the first section we learn that Auster was born into a comfortable, middle class home. His parents appeared well-matched, except on one issue: money. His frugal father and extravagant mother were constantly at odds over the eternal riddle, to spend or to save. Auster found himself in the middle, favoring one, then the other parent.

By the time of their divorce during his senior year, Auster had learned one thing: "Money talked, and to the degree that you listened to it and followed its arguments, you would learn to speak the language of life."

Alternating attendance at Columbia University with travels in Europe, Auster was struck by "the essential inhumanity of the marketplace," reasoning that "If you construct a world so primitive as to make Darwin your leading philosopher and Aesop your leading poet, what else can you expect?"

After graduating from Columbia and completing some "literary hackwork," Auster took to sea, working on a series of dismal tankers and continuing his writing. He returned to Paris in 1971, filling his time with the odd translation job. Following a stint, with his girlfriend, of working as the caretakers of a farmhouse in the northern Var, he returned to New York. "I had under ten dollars in my pocket and not a single concrete plan for the future. I was twenty-seven years old, and with nothing to show for myself but a book of poems and a handful of obscure literary essays."

A seven-month job producing book catalogs for Ex Libris "was the only period of my adult life when I earned a regular paycheck."

After his stint with Ex Libris ended in March 1975, he married Lydia Davis, and they translated books for a meager living. By his sonís birth in June 1977, he had also written poetry, some one-act plays, and published literary criticism. Kept afloat by the occasional grant, Auster had a play produced, which flopped embarrassingly. With neither money nor food, schemes, such as "Make Money Growing Worms in Your Basement" began to sound attractive.

Unable to find work, Auster tried to sell his game, Action Baseball, which was roundly rejected. At that point he felt he had reached the lowest point in his life. "Nine years of freelance penury had burned me out."

Desperate for money, Auster wrote a detective novel. Though he was initially unable to sell his novel, the book was eventually published, netting him the grand sum of nine hundred dollars. At this point the narrative ends.

The plays, while undistinguished "minimalist exercises," will no doubt interest biographical scholars. One can play connect the dots from Beckett to Austerís play "Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven," to his novel The Music of Chance. The second play, "Blackouts," is a remarkable first version of his later Ghosts.

Auster accurately describes his entertaining novel, Squeeze Play, as "no worse than many others I had read, much better than some." The story of a famous baseball player involved in a deadly automobile accident will amuse both Auster fans and detective novel aficionados. (Unfortunately, Auster gives away a key plot point in his autobiographical essay.)

This is a peculiar book. With its pastiche of memoir, plays, game, and novel, it could appear that Auster, now famous, has published the contents of his desk drawer. The more charitable and sophisticated could argue that its palimpsest form continues Austerís experimentation with the postmodern.

While this is Auster in a minor key, it does have its virtues. It rescues his early novel from oblivion and it gives scholars a bit more grist to grind. The memoir portion should be great comfort to would-be writers. It demonstrates that one of the darlings of American letters is as obtuse as any of us about what it takes to make a literary career. Auster confirms that in literature, as in the rest of life, persistence pays.