It’s no mystery that Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt are often characters in their own books. The dashing, Park Slope–based literary couple are fond of dressing up autobiographical details: In his 1985 noir trilogy, City of Glass , Mr. Auster invented a character named Paul Auster (with a wife named Siri, who also makes an appearance). In Ms. Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold , a mystery set in New York, the heroine is named Iris, which is Siri spelled backwards.
But is all this fun getting out of hand? In Ms. Hustvedt’s new novel, What I Loved , just published by Henry Holt, her stepson, Daniel Auster-Paul Auster’s son by his former wife, the writer Lydia Davis-makes a thinly veiled appearance. What is striking about this is that Paul Auster has generally been circumspect about his son, with what would seem to be good reason: In 1998, Daniel Auster, then 20, pleaded guilty in Manhattan Supreme Court to stealing $3,000 from a deceased drug dealer named Andre (Angel) Melendez and received a sentence of five years’ probation. Melendez was not just any deceased drug dealer-his death became a tabloid bonanza when his killer turned out to be a downtown party promoter named Michael Alig. Mr. Alig-currently serving a sentence of 20 years at the Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City, N.Y.-killed Melendez and chopped up his body, with some help from his roommate Robert Riggs, who was also convicted of manslaughter.
While Daniel Auster was never implicated in the slaying, he admitted to being in the apartment while it happened, according to a 1998 Reuters report of his courtroom plea.
All in all, not the sort of event any father would want his son to be involved in, and not the sort of story a father would want the world to spend too much time pondering. But now the world-or at least the New York literary community-can do just that, thanks to Ms. Hustvedt’s new novel.
Ms. Hustvedt’s book tells the story of one Bill Wechsler, a darkly handsome (“the Byronic ideal of male beauty”) and well-known artist who is married to Violet Blom, a pretty academic of Scandinavian descent who hails from Minnesota (a perfect description of Ms. Hustvedt herself). They meet in the downtown art scene of the 1970’s and 80’s, and Violet eventually helps Bill raise Mark, his son from a previous marriage. Mark gets mixed up with a downtown artist, Teddy Giles, who commits the mysterious and grisly murder of a club kid, Rafael Hernandez. In the novel, Mark Wechsler is rumored to be Giles’ lover and is implicated as a possible accomplice in the killing. While the book eventually exonerates Mark Wechsler, it is hardly a ringing endorsement:
“Violet had long suspected that Mark hadn’t told the full truth about the murder,” Ms. Hustvedt writes. “Mark had fooled him, the way he had fooled us all …. I knew that by some definition both Teddy Giles and Mark Wechsler were insane, examples of an indifference many regard as monstrous and unnatural; but in fact they weren’t unique and their actions were recognizably human.”
Ms. Hustvedt said in recent interviews with the British press that What I Loved is “emotionally autobiographical,” that Bill is based largely on Mr. Auster, and that Bill and Violet’s marriage drew on her own marriage. When asked by The Observer to elaborate on other biographical elements in the book, Ms. Hustvedt declined to talk. Mr. Auster’s publicist at Henry Holt did not return calls. A spokesperson at the Southport Correctional Facility told The Observer that Mr. Alig is currently in special lockdown because of bad behavior and is barred from taking phone calls.
Novelists are, of course, famous for mining their own lives for their fiction. Somewhat less common is a novelist who dips into the lives of a spouse’s children for literary inspiration. One must fight the temptation to conclude that What I Loved is Ms. Hustvedt’s way of expressing her unvarnished feelings about Daniel Auster and his birth mother, Lydia Davis, who appears as Lucille Alcott in the novel and, as such, takes some blame for Mark’s bizarre personality.
“Did we cause it?” asks Violet. “Did we ruin him? I don’t know …. I’ll tell you this, I hate Lucille, too, even though she can’t help the way she is-all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”
(A spokesperson for Ms. Davis said she was unavailable for comment.)
What I Loved arrives just two months before the release of Party Monster , starring Macauley Culkin as Mr. Alig. The movie traces the life of the gay club kid and his eventual conviction in the manslaughter of Melendez, who earned his nickname by wearing angel wings around town.
The facts of the real-life case are well known to the club world: In March of 1996, Mr. Alig got into a fight in his apartment over drug money with the 26-year-old Melendez. As Mr. Alig was strangling Melendez, his roommate Robert Riggs appeared and bludgeoned Melendez with a hammer. Mr. Alig then poured liquid Drano down Melendez’s throat, and later dismembered his body and disposed of the remains in the Hudson River.
After Melendez went missing, Mr. Alig apparently bragged about the murder to friends. The Village Voice ‘s Michael Musto first planted a blind item about the murder in an April 1996 column, well before Mr. Alig was arrested. “Mr. Mess was fighting with Mr. Dealer about money Mr. Dealer was owed,” wrote Mr. Musto. “Mr. Mess #2” arrived and helped finish him off. Eventually they “set to work chopping the body into pieces and throwing them into the river.”
On April 12, 1996, Melendez’s remains were found in a cardboard box floating in the river off Staten Island and identified a few months later using dental records. Both Mr. Alig and Mr. Riggs pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to 20 years. The role of Daniel Auster has never been entirely clear. According to The New York Times , Daniel Auster pleaded guilty to stealing $3,000 in money from Melendez (“Prosecutors declined to elaborate on how he obtained the money,” said The Times ) and got five years’ probation. No one from the Auster camp has since spoken about it publicly.
The corresponding events in What I Loved don’t need much help to leap off the page. Downtown club figure Teddy Giles brags of having committed a murder months before he is caught. Rafael Hernandez has gone missing. The events leading up to Giles’ arrest are followed closely by the columnist of a “free downtown paper,” who writes blind gossip items about the case and suggests that Mark Wechsler is Giles’ former boyfriend and may be involved in the murder. In Ms. Hustvedt’s novel, the first blind item reads: “Rumors are flying about a certain Bad Boy on the art scene and the body of his thirteen-year-old ex-toy and part-time E dealer that bobbed up in the Hudson. One of B.B.’s ex- girlfriends claims that there’s a witness-yet another one of B.B.’s many A.C./D.C. exes. Could the plot get any thicker? Stay tuned …. “
Later, in another passage: “It wasn’t long before the trail led to Mark and his association with Giles. A gossip columnist in a downtown free paper speculated on the connection between them, hinting that Giles and ‘Wechsler the Younger’ were lovers, or had been lovers.”
On page 342, the body of Rafael Hernandez is discovered in the river, “cut into pieces, and after months of decaying under water, those fragments of bone, sodden tissue, and teeth had revealed his identity-nothing more.”
Eventually, the Giles character is caught and Mark Wechsler is cleared of wrongdoing.
Mark Wechsler, who drifts in and out of the lives of his parents, is described as hopelessly caught up in the drug-fueled lifestyle of the club scene, a chronic liar who constantly changed his story “according to the circumstances in which he found himself.”
“I’m full of hate,” Violet thinks. “I hate Mark. I used to love him. Of course, I didn’t love him right away, but I learned to love him slowly, and then later to hate him, and I ask myself, Would I hate him if I had given birth to him, if he were my son? But the really terrible question is this: What was it that I loved?”
The links between the novel and real life rarely waver: After the death of his father in 1979, Mr. Auster wrote a book about him called The Invention of Solitude . In What I Loved, Bill Wechsler does a series of paintings based on the death of his father.
Even the years closely coincide: Bill and Lucille get married and have a son in the mid-70’s. Mr. Auster married Lydia Davis in 1974. Both Mark Wechsler and Daniel Auster were born in 1977. In 1981, Bill begins a romance with Violet, the same year Mr. Auster met Ms. Hustvedt. The artistic merging of the Auster-Hustvedt marriage is mirrored in the book: “It started with the paintings of me that you said were of you,” Violet writes to Bill. “We’ve written and drawn ourselves into each other.”
Some of the novel’s most pointed passages come when Ms. Hustvedt writes about Lucille, the character based on her husband’s first wife. In his book The Red Notebook , Mr. Auster described his romance with Ms. Davis in the early 1970’s as “on-again off-again.” In Ms. Hustvedt’s book, Bill says of Lucille, “I chased her for years. It was on again and off again.” He is said to be “oblivious to the power [Lucille] had over him.”
The book describes Lucille as cold, detached and socially inept, unable to love her former husband or her son. Says Violet: “And Mark, my boy. He was my boy, too. I loved them. I loved them. She didn’t. She can’t.”
When Lucille has sex in the book, she makes “a small grunting sound.”
In the book, Mark’s troubles literally kill his father: Bill Wechsler dies of depression, and Violet moves to Paris. “However one chose to read them,” writes Ms. Hustvedt, “Mark’s outbursts of delinquency exacted a cruel vengeance on Violet and Bill.”
“Bill loved his changeling child,” Ms. Hustvedt writes, “his blank son, his Ghosty Boy. He loved the boy-man who is still roaming from city to city and is still reaching into this traveling bag to find a face to wear and a voice to use.”
Last year, Paul Auster told a reporter for The Guardian that his son “is currently finding himself-ask me again in a couple of years.”