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Likely Stories: 4321 by Paul Auster

Epic saga of a family with origins dating back to the 19th up to the 20th century.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Paul Auster might not be a house-hold name, but it surely ought to be.  He has written a dozen novels, a collection of poetry, two hands full each of non-fiction, screen plays, illustrated books, and he edited several other works.  His latest novel is 4321, which made the 2017 Booker Prize Short List.  The three I picked made the short list.  I had already read one – Lincoln on the Bardo by George Saunders and I owned Paul Auster’s 4321.  I felt confident that I would have picked the winner this year, and I did.  George Saunders greatly deserved the prize for a wonderfully inventive and absorbing novel.  However, my favorite was the Auster tome of 866 pages. 

4321 is one of the greatest novels I have ever read.  It is a story of a man from Russia who escaped with jewels and money sown into the lining of his coat.  He ends up on Ellis Island, and meets a fellow traveler who warns him his alphabet soup of a Yiddish/Russian name would get him nowhere.  When he finally sits before the examiner, he says in Yiddish, “Ikh hob Fargessen” (I’ve forgotten)!  The clerk entered his name as Ichabod Ferguson.  Ichabod fathers four sons, who, in turn create offspring of their own.  Archie Ferguson, grandson of Ichabod, becomes the focus of the story.

A few words of advice: First, make lots of family trees to keep the main characters straight.  Second, have a good dictionary at hand, and third, readers might want to familiarize themselves with the latest theories of the Multiverse.  Also, readers must play close attention to Chapter 2.2.   

Archie’s Aunt Mildred was a college professor, and she carefully guided him along a reading -life path.  She sent him dozens of recommendations and books for him to read.  In one of his letters home from summer camp, Auster writes, “‘I’ve read three books since I’ve been here,’ he wrote in the last letter, which was dated August 9th, ‘and I thought they were all terrific.  Two of them were sent to me by my Aunt Mildred, and a little one by Franz Kafka called The Metamorphosis and a bigger one by J.D. Salinger called The Catcher in the Rye.  The other was given to me by my cousin Francie’s husband Gary—Candide by Voltaire.  The Kafka book is by far the weirdest and most difficult to read, but I loved it.  A man wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s been turned into an enormous insect!  It sounds like science fiction or a horror story, but it isn’t.  It’s about the man’s soul.  The Catcher in the Rye is about a high school boy wandering around New York.  Nothing much happens in it, but the way Holden talks (he’s the hero) is very realistic and true, and you can’t help liking him and wishing he could be your friend.  Candide is an old book from the 18th century, but it is wild and funny, and I laughed out loud on almost every page” (179).

When I reached about a hundred pages to the end, I frequently cried, and I slowed down my reading to only a couple of pages – at the most! – because I did not want it to end.  But when I did finish, I knew it would never end.  Paul Auster, 4321, and Archie Ferguson will be with me for a long time -- as long as I can manage reading.  10 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.