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“I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water”. The first line of a novel that will stretch your imagination to its limits and confound your every expectation. Put simply, ‘Mr. Vertigo’ tells the story of Walt, a young boy who is taken under the wing of the mysterious Master Yehudi and taught how to fly. His new talent is showcased in a number of theatres throughout America but before he manages to achieve national fame he is forced to retire as a result of the changes brought about by the onset of puberty. However, such a short description is never going to do justice to a novel that spans a lifetime and looks deep into the heart of America at the beginning of the 20th century. For me, one of the greatest achievements Auster makes in this novel is being able to suspend the reader’s disbelief and make the fact that a boy learns to fly appear a perfectly acceptable event. Much of the first section of the book is taken up by the sometimes horrific and nearly always degrading training regime through which the young boy is put by Master Yehudi and the first act of levitation seems the logical conclusion of the process. It is also interesting that when this evolves into the ability to fly the focus of the story quickly shifts away to look more at the relationships between the characters rather than the incredible notion of a flying boy. Walt’s supernatural abilities become one of the background events in the book while Auster spends much more time exploring the relationship between Master Yehudi and his young apprentice which turns from one of bitter dislike into a loving father/son relationship. The characters that Auster creates are, without exception, rich and entirely convincing. Throughout the novel the reader is introduced not only to Walt and Master Yehudi, but also the likes of Mother Sioux, an Native American woman who once toured with Buffalo Bill and now acts as housekeeper for Master Yehudi, Aes
op, an escaped slave boy and another apprentice of Master Yehudi who is being nurtured for Harvard or Yale University and Mrs Witherspoon, the rich benefactress who makes Walt’s training possible. The interaction between the characters is a delight, especially the relationships that Walt comes to form with each of them over the years. Despite the fact that the novel contains a central premise based on fantasy, Auster is not afraid to confront more serious issues. Through the characters of Mother Sioux and Aesop he challenges the racism that has plagued much of America’s history. Master Yehudi’s transformation of Aesop from a half dead black slave boy to an intellectual teenager with offers to study at the best universities in the country provides a stark contrast to the mindless brutality of the faceless Ku-Klux-Klan which only acts out of anger and a need to punish those who are different. The consequences of the Klan’s actions also supply one of the most memorable and moving passages in the book. One of the criticisms that I have heard about ‘Mr. Vertigo’ is that it is too long. Once Walt finds himself unable to fly the novel continues for almost a hundred pages and the last third of the book contains an account of the rest of Walt’s life from his teenage years until he sits down as an old man and begins to write down his experiences. I do not find this section too long at all. It provides a balance to the more fantastic earlier parts of the book and I do not think the book would be complete without the description of Walt’s adult life. For me, Auster is not just writing about a boy who loses the magic ability to fly, but rather the lost magic of childhood that we all experience as we enter adult life. Looking back on his younger years after he has learnt to fly Walt sees a world where anything seems possible and whatever he wants is his for the taking. Stardom is within his grasp and it is only a s
eries of cruel twists of fate that deprive him of this. Yet surely every child feels this way, filled with youthful optimism that is only ground down once the realities of adult life begin to make themselves known. It is only when we see Walt as a struggling adult taking on job after job in an effort to make ends meet that we can truly appreciate the significance of his childhood. The magic of Walt’s youth also seems to be a reflection on the America in which he is growing up. At the same time as Walt is learning to fly the country is just beginning to adopt the automobile and other icons of the modern age. There is a feeling of leaving behind one way of life where the carnivals and freak shows of the nineteenth century could hold towns captive and entering the new age of the twentieth century where machinery and scientific advances make the miracles of past ages impossible through their cold, precise logic. All in all, this is a novel that I greatly enjoyed and would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody. The characters are wonderfully detailed and easy to believe in. As with other novels by Paul Auster the plot twists and turns and the reader can never be sure what is about to happen next. As I got closer to the end of the novel I found myself reading slower and slower – I simply didn’t want it to end.
The tale of a young orphan, Walt: his apprenticeship to Master Yehudi who promises him the secret of levitation, his stardom as the boy who can fly, and his unexpected later change of career. All set in the Old American West of the early 1900's.