Timbuktu

Auster, Paul

Published by Henry Holt, 1999
ISBN 10: 0805054073 / ISBN 13: 9780805054071
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Synopsis: Meet Mr. Bones, the canine hero of Paul Auster's remarkable new novel, Timbuktu. Mr. Bones is the sidekick and confidant of Willy G. Christmas, the brilliant, troubled, and altogether original poet-saint from Brooklyn. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza before them, they sally forth on a last great adventure, heading for Baltimore, Maryland in search of Willy's high school teacher, Bea Swanson. Years have passed since Willy last saw his beloved mentor, who knew him in his previous incarnation as William Gurevitch, the son of Polish war refugees. But is Mrs. Swanson still alive? And if she isn't, what will prevent Willy from vanishing into that other world known as Timbuktu?

Mr. Bones is our witness. Although he walks on four legs and cannot speak, he can think, and out of his thoughts Auster has spun one of the richest, most compelling tales in recent American fiction. By turns comic, poignant, and tragic, Timbuktu is above all a love story. Written with a scintillating verbal energy, it takes us into the heart of a singularly pure and passionate character, an unforgettable dog who has much to teach us about our own humanity.

Review: In Timbuktu Paul Auster tackles homelessness in America using a dog as his point-of-view character. Strange as the premise seems, it's been done before, in John Berger's King, and it actually works. Filtering the homeless experience through the relentlessly unsentimental eye of a dog, both writers avoid miring their tales in an excess of melodrama. Whereas Berger's book skips among several characters, Timbuktu remains tightly focused on just two: Mr. Bones, "a mutt of no particular worth or distinction," and his master, Willy G. Christmas, a middle-aged schizophrenic who has been on the streets since the death of his mother four years before. The novel begins with Willy and Mr. Bones in Baltimore searching for a former high school English teacher who had encouraged the teenage Willy's writerly aspirations. Now Willy is dying and anxious to find a home for both his dog and the multitude of manuscripts he has stashed in a Greyhound bus terminal. "Willy had written the last sentence he would ever write, and there were no more than a few ticks left in the clock. The words in the locker were all he had to show for himself. If the words vanished, it would be as if he had never lived."

Paul Auster is a cerebral writer, preferring to get to his reader's gut through the brain. When Willy dies, he goes out on a sea of words; as for Mr. Bones, this is a dog who can think about metaphysical issues such as the afterlife--referred to by Willy as "Timbuktu":

What if no pets were allowed? It didn't seem possible, and yet Mr. Bones had lived long enough to know that anything was possible, that impossible things happened all the time. Perhaps this was one of them, and in that perhaps hung a thousand dreads and agonies, an unthinkable horror that gripped him every time he thought about it.
Once Willy dies and Mr. Bones is on his own, things go from bad to worse as the now masterless dog faces a series of betrayals, rejections, and disappointments. By stepping inside a dog's skin, Auster is able to comment on human cruelties and infrequent kindnesses from a unique world view. But reader be warned: the world in Timbuktu is a bleak one, and even the occasional moments of grace are short lived. --Alix Wilber

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Title: Timbuktu
Publisher: Henry Holt
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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