BOOK REVIEW / Tricks of a gamblin' man: Mr Vertigo - Paul Auster: Faber, pounds 14.99

THE FIRST line of Paul Auster's new novel is like a phosphorus flash announcing the stage entrance of some outlandish magician: 'I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water.' Walter Clairborne Rawley goes on to recount his bizarre pact with the mysterious Master Yehudi, who discovers him living as a street urchin in St Louis in the Twenties. Within three years, Master Yehudi promises, he will teach Walt the art of levitation and make them both rich beyond their dreams. Should he fail, Walt can take the Master's head off with an axe.

It seems a ludicrous bargain, yet the Master succeeds, though it is Auster who performs the real magic, creating a narrative both thrilling in its intricacies and intriguing in its depths. Walt joins Master Yehudi on his farm in Kansas to live with two other wards - Aesop, a crippled black boy, and Mother Sioux, a great- niece of Sitting Bull. It is while living as an outcast in the vast expanse of America's Midwest - the 'Big Sky' country - that Walt takes off, and so does the story.

Auster is fond of popular American mythologies: the poker game, the road movie, the detective story. In City of Glass he took the classic film noir gumshoe adventure, unwinding the tight coils of the traditional plot so that it spiralled away in directions which were at once familiar, yet startlingly new. In the same way, Mr Vertigo is an archetypal rags-to-riches tale.

Its roots are in the 19th-century narrative tradition, and even in one of Auster's favourite books, The Adventures of Pinocchio: Walt is in fact a 'real boy' who becomes a puppet. It is also close in spirit to Little Orphan Annie, the Twenties newspaper strip about a destitute child who is mercifully rescued from the cruel clutches of poverty. Walt even has a wicked uncle to contend with, pushing the pastiche to the point of parody. As Walt's incredible talent produces unexpected consequences, Auster conjures up a stream of plot twists like a magician pulling silk scarves from his breast pocket, each more colourful than the last.

Running through the novel, barely concealed, are the author's familiar preoccupations: the nature of the self, redemption, transcendence, chance encounters, father-son relationships and rites of passage. The last two themes have particular significance. Master Yehudi, a severe and distant mentor, formulates a geometric view of metaphysics from reading Spinoza. This inspires his own pseudo-mystical invention of trials by ordeal which Walt must pass if he is to get off the ground. He combines this with a theory of the paranormal, 'consensus reality', which postulates that people cannot levitate because they 'learn' that such feats are impossible, creating a mental block that only the simple-minded can overcome. Master Yehudi recognises that Walt's intellect is a clean slate, which is why he plucks him from the crowd. He must then crush the only thing the boy has, his spirit, to make him fly. It is a brutal method which turns out to have serious consequences.

So Walter Rawley, guttersnipe from St Louis, becomes the amazing 'Walt the Wonderboy'. He walks on water in 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh flies his own Spirit of St Louis across the Atlantic, a historic journey which within a lifetime has become no more than a trip 'across the pond'. The period setting for Mr Vertigo is wonderfully realised (doctors are still called 'sawbones') and perfectly chosen, but not simply for convenient irony and coincidence. The Twenties are still within living memory for some, yet many of the events of the time have passed into history with scant material evidence; cinema and photography were still unreliable tools in their infancy. It is a curious decade which lies on the cusp between two very different eras: the 19th century with its superstition, uncertainty and freakish curiosity, and the 20th with its technology, hard facts and cynicism.

There's no doubt that, in addition to its ingenuity, one of the pleasures of Mr Vertigo is in witnessing a remarkable act of novelistic escapology. The challenge Paul Auster sets himself is to make the improbable seem possible, and in a period which is, paradoxically, comparatively recent yet peculiarly obfuscated. The novel, like its setting, is 'a stopping place on the road to reality'. It begins with a recognisable representation of the past, complete with historical figures and events. Indeed, Auster needs a familiar setting in which to spin the threads of his yarn. But to return us to a similarly recognisable present, those threads must be disentangled and discarded before the conclusion. Walt the Wonderboy's fantastic career must run its course, then be rationalised and returned to a plausible place in the world as we know it for the novel to work. And work it does.

Those who have followed Auster's career - from The New York Trilogy, through Moon Palace, The Music of Chance and other novels - may spot recurring philosophical obsessions or plot devices, and feel that they are seeing the same tricks pulled again. But in even the harshest assessment Mr Vertigo is a virtuoso piece of storytelling by a master of the modern American fable.

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn