Normally, not committing adultery tends to be good for a marriage. Not so for Harry Quirk. His wife, Luz, is convinced the middle-aged poet is having an affair with his old friend Marion, and his protestations of innocence only enrage her. (To be clear: Harry didn't have an affair this time. There had been one, 12 years earlier, for which, he points out indignantly, he has already done penance.)
After 30 years of marriage, Luz throws Harry out of their apartment and shreds the poems he had spent a year working on. At 57, Harry finds himself flailing: He can't remember any of the poems his wife destroyed and keeps concocting schemes to get Luz to talk to him in The Astral, Kate Christensen's follow-up to her PEN/Faulkner-winning “The Great Man.”
The novel's title comes from the scene of the crime, as it were – “The Astral” is the name of the fortress-like building with Harry and Luz lived and raised two children in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “The place was compelling to look at from without, blighted from within.… Some claimed that Mae West had been born in this building; I didn't see why that couldn't have been so,” Harry relates.
Toodling around on a second-hand bike, Harry serves as a most genial, sad-sack tour guide, as he tries to figure out what happened to his seemingly happy marriage to the love of his life.
“We can stand here talking until we're ninety and we're gaga, and we won't agree on what happened for those years we lived here together,” Harry says.
“Maybe that's the problem, maybe that's what happened. We spent thirty years under this roof together, and we have totally different ideas about that entire time we called a marriage.”
Poetry being somewhat less lucrative than, say, plumbing, and Harry's severely formal style considered old-fashioned even by those who still buy poems, he gets a job as the only non-Jew at a Hasidic lumberyard. Meanwhile, his grown son appears to have gotten himself mixed up with a cult, while his freegan daughter – the most stable member of the family – worries about her parents and sibling.
Christensen knows her way around aging, male types in a way that would terrify participants at an Iron John weekend, and “The Astral” is one of her most engaging reads, as both the reader and Harry try to figure out what comes next.