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Authors: Paul Auster

Mr. Vertigo

BOOK: Mr. Vertigo
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Soaring reviews for
Mr. Vertigo

Mr. Vertigo
is a thrilling flight of fancy that never abandons the world. A magical pertinent book, it gives us a bird’s-eye view of the strange, violent, paradoxical century behind us.”

Los Angeles Times

“A rollicking tale of greed and redemption … Auster has created a character who will remain aloft in readers’ memories.”


“An exuberant novel of ideas … strange and masterful… . Walt Rawley may well be Auster’s finest creation … his is a shrewd, larger-than-life American voice in the tradition of Huck Finn and Holden Caufield.”

Harper’s Bazaar

Mr. Vertigo
proves that nothing beats a good old yarn.”


“The language crackles, the plot jumps, and the characters astonish in this tale of magic and loss, loneliness and exaltation.”

Entertainment Weekly

“Auster Americanizes a miracle and takes us to a place where only magicians have gone before.”


“Auster soars on the wings of a metaphor with a tale that’s light and engaging—as well as fraught with meaning.”

The Boston Phoenix

“Beautiful writing does soar, and at his best, Auster makes it look easy.”

Chicago Tribune



PAUL AUSTER is the author of the novels
The Brooklyn Follies, Oracle Night, The Book of Illusions, Timbuktu, Mr. Vertigo, Leviathan
(awarded the 1993 Prix Medicis Étranger),
The Music of Chance
(nominated for the 1991 PEN/Faulkner Award),
Moon Palace, In the Country of Last Things
, and the three novels known as “The New York Trilogy”:
City of Glass, Ghosts
, and
The Locked Room
. He has also written two memoirs (
The Invention of Solitude
Hand to Mouth
), a collection of essays, and a volume of poems, and edited the book
I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project
. Auster was the recipient of the 2006 Prince of Asturias Award for Letters and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. He has won literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both poetry and prose, and in 1990 received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He wrote the screenplays for
Smoke, Blue in the Face
, and
Lulu on the Bridge
, which he also directed. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.





Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber Limited 1994

First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc., 1994

Published in Penguin Books 1995

Copyright © Paul Auster, 1994
All rights reserved

Portions of this book appeared in
Granta, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
, and
Grand Street

Auster, Paul.
Mr. Vertigo/Paul Auster.
p. cm.
ISBN 0-670-85209-0 (hc.)
ISBN 978-0-14-023190-8 (pbk.)
ISBN: 978-1-101-56263-5 (epub.)
1. Aged men—United States—Fiction. 2. Magicians—United States—Fiction.
I. Title. II. Title: Mister Vertigo.
PS3551.U77M7    1994
813’.54—dc20        93-34887

Designed by Francesca Belanger

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

Table of Contents






was twelve years old the first time I walked on water. The man in the black clothes taught me how to do it, and I’m not going to pretend I learned that trick overnight. Master Yehudi found me when I was nine, an orphan boy begging nickels on the streets of Saint Louis, and he worked with me steadily for three years before he let me show my stuff in public. That was in 1927, the year of Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh, the precise year when night began to fall on the world forever. I kept it up until a few days before the October crash, and what I did was greater than anything those two gents could have dreamed of. I did what no American had done before me, what no one has ever done since.

Master Yehudi chose me because I was the smallest, the dirtiest, the most abject. “You’re no better than an animal,” he said, “a piece of human nothingness.” That was the first sentence he spoke to me, and even though sixty-eight years have passed since that night, it’s as if I can still hear the words coming from the master’s mouth. “You’re no better than an animal. If you stay where you are, you’ll be dead before winter is out. If you come with me, I’ll teach you how to fly.”

“Ain’t nobody can fly, mister,” I said. “That’s what birds do, and I sure as hell ain’t no bird.”

“You know nothing,” Master Yehudi said. “You know nothing because you are nothing. If I haven’t taught you to fly by your
thirteenth birthday, you can chop off my head with an axe. I’ll put it in writing if you like. If I fail to deliver on my promise, my fate will be in your hands.”

It was a Saturday night in early November, and we were standing in front of the Paradise Cafe, a slick downtown gin mill with a colored jazz band and cigarette girls in transparent dresses. I used to hang around there on weekends, cadging handouts and running errands and hustling cabs for the swells. At first I thought Master Yehudi was just another drunk, a rich booze hound stumbling through the night in a black tuxedo and a silk top hat. His accent was strange, so I figured him to be from out of town, but that was as far as I took it. Drunks say stupid things, and the business about flying was no stupider than most.

“You get too high in the air,” I said, “you could break your neck when you come down.”

“We’ll talk about technique later,” the master said. “It’s not an easy skill to learn, but if you listen to me and obey my instructions, we’ll both wind up millionaires.”

“You’re already a millionaire,” I said. “What do you need me for?”

“Because, my wretched little thug, I barely have two dimes to rub together, I might look like a robber baron to you, but that’s only because you have sawdust for brains. Listen to me carefully. I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime, but you only get that chance once. I’m booked on the
Blue Bird Special
at six thirty a.m., and if you don’t haul your carcass onto that train, this is the last you’ll ever see of me.”

“You still haven’t answered my question,” I said.

“Because you’re the answer to my prayers, son. That’s why I want you. Because you have the gift.”

“Gift? I ain’t got no gift. And even if I did, what would you
know about it, Mr. Monkey Suit? You only started talking to me a minute ago.”

“Wrong again,” said Master Yehudi. “I’ve been watching you for a week. And if you think your aunt and unele would be sorry to see you gone, then you don’t know who you’ve been living with for the past four years.”

“My aunt and uncle?” I said, suddenly realizing that this man was no Saturday-night drunk. He was something worse than that: a truant officer or a cop, and sure as I was standing there, I was up to my knees in shit.

“Your Uncle Slim is a piece of work,” the master continued, taking his time now that he had my attention. “I never knew an American citizen could be that dumb. Not only does he smell bad, but he’s mean and ugly to boot. No wonder you turned into such a weasel-faced guttersnipe. We had a long conversation this morning, your uncle and I, and he’s willing to let you go without a penny changing hands. Imagine that, boy. I didn’t even have to pay for you. And that dough-fleshed sow he calls his wife just sat there and never said a word in your defense. If that’s the best you can do for a family, then you’re lucky to be rid of those two. The decision is yours, but even if you turn me down, it might not be such a good idea to go back. They’d be plenty disappointed to see you again, I can tell you that. Just about dumbstruck with sorrow, if you know what I mean.”

I might have been an animal, but even the lowest animal has feelings, and when the master sprang this news on me, I felt as if I’d been punched. Uncle Slim and Aunt Peg were nothing to write home about, but their home was where I lived, and it stopped me in my tracks to learn they didn’t want me. I was only nine years old, after all. Tough as I was for that age, I wasn’t half as tough as I pretended to be, and if the master
hadn’t been looking down at me with those dark eyes of his just then, I probably would have started bawling right there on the street.

When I think back to that night now, I’m still not sure if he was telling me the truth or not. He could have talked to my aunt and uncle, but then again, he could have been making the whole thing up. I don’t doubt that he’d seen them—he had their descriptions dead on—but knowing my Uncle Slim, it strikes me as next to impossible that he would have let me go without wheedling some cash out of the bargain. I’m not saying that Master Yehudi welshed on him, but given what happened later, there’s no question that the bastard felt wronged, whether justice was on his side or not. I’m not going to waste time puzzling over that now. The upshot was that I fell for what the master told me, and in the long run that’s the only fact that bears telling. He convinced me that I couldn’t go home, and once I accepted that, I didn’t give a damn about myself anymore. That must have been how he wanted me to feel—all jangled up and lost inside. If you don’t see any reason to go on living, it’s hard to care much about what happens to you. You tell yourself you want to be dead, and after that you discover you’re ready for anything—even a crazy thing like vanishing into the night with a stranger.

“Okay, mister,” I said, dropping my voice a couple of octaves and giving him my best cutthroat stare, “you’ve got yourself a deal. But if you don’t come through for me like you say, you can kiss your head good-bye. I might be small, but I never let a man forget a promise.”

It was still dark when we boarded the train. We rode west into the dawn, traveling across the state of Missouri as the dim November light struggled to crack through the clouds. I hadn’t been out of Saint Louis since the day they buried my mother, and it was a gloomy world I discovered that morning: gray and barren,
with endless fields of withered cornstalks flanking us on both sides. We chugged into Kansas City a little past noon, but in all the hours we spent together I don’t think Master Yehudi spoke more than three or four words to me. Most of the time he slept, nodding off with his hat pulled down over his face, but I was too scared to do anything but look out the window, watching the land slip past me as I pondered the mess I’d gotten myself into. My pals in Saint Louis had warned me about characters like Master Yehudi: solitary drifters with evil designs, perverts on the prowl for young boys to do their bidding. It was bad enough to imagine him taking off my clothes and touching me where I didn’t want to be touched, but that was nothing compared to some of the other fears knocking around in my skull. I’d heard about one boy who had gone off with a stranger and was never heard from again. Later on, the man confessed he’d sliced up the lad into little pieces and boiled him for dinner. Another boy had been chained to a wall in a dark cellar and given nothing to eat but bread and water for six months. Another one had had the skin peeled off his bones. Now that I had time to consider what I’d done, I figured I might be in for the same kind of treatment myself. I’d let myself fall into the clutches of a monster, and if he turned out to be half as spooky as he looked, the odds were I’d never see the dawn rise again.

BOOK: Mr. Vertigo
3.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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