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.