Elderly book critic August Brill lies awake, tortured by insomnia in "another white night in the great American wilderness." He has moved into the Vermont home of his divorced daughter, Miriam, to recuperate from injuries suffered in an automobile accident, and is joined there by his granddaughter, Katya, who's struggling to recover from the death of her onetime boyfriend Titus Small. That's the setup of this intricate and challenging novel from Paul Auster.
In his effort to pass the long, sleepless hours, Brill invents stories, and the one that runs parallel to his own tale of emotional turmoil is of a frighteningly plausible alternative history of the U.S. after the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Led by New York, 15 states secede and form the Independent States of America that wages war against the Federals. Into this conflict, Brill thrusts an everyman named Owen Brick, first seen asleep at the bottom of a deep hole. Brick, who works as a magician known as the Great Zavello, is sent on a mission to kill the man who is imagining the tale: August Brill. Brick navigates his way through a war – ravaged landscape, gradually discovering that in this alternate reality there's been no 9/11, no Iraq War, these traumatic events supplanted by an even more terrifying vision of his country riven by civil strife.
Brill's creative musings gradually and yet somehow inevitably give way to reflections on the losses and failings of his own life. He recounts the story of his brother – in – law Gil, an idealistic lawyer for the city of Newark whose career is destroyed by the 1967 race riots. He movingly shares with his granddaughter the details of his marriage to his late wife Sophia, a talented singer, with whom he reconciled after an ill – advised marriage to a younger woman and then lost to cancer. And in a starkly realistic climax, Brill narrates the horrific details of Titus Small's death in a way that brings home the chilling reality of war.
Man in the Dark is terse and frighteningly intense. Whether he's describing the brutality of the imagined second American civil war or delving into his protagonist's inner life, Auster is a master at sustaining acute psychological tension. Like a Russian nesting doll, there are layers within layers to be discovered in this intellectually stimulating work.