A Student Newspaper Salon
In the fall of 1968, Auster began to write for the Columbia Daily Spectator, which gave him a coterie or salon. It immersed him in the mimeo world, but not the downtown one of di Prima, Jones, Blackburn et al. Surprising for the times, this salon kept him far from politics; he was seeing a lot of movies at the Thalia and New Yorker theaters, and he began reviewing them. He covered Thomas Reichman’s Mingus (October 11), Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (October 21), Milos Forman’s Fireman’s Ball (November 15), and closed the semester with a critique of “The Hollywood Mentality” and a review of John Frankenheimer’s The Fixer (December 10). Those were his choices; he did not review 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (both 1968).23 He seems to have been looking to film for some vantage point outside of current cultural conditions, rather like Garcia Marquez did, which suggests a developing relation between film and modern World Literature. But Auster’s itch was for something more post-modern than Garcia Marquez’ Italian neo-realism.
He also wrote a review of collected poems of the neglected 18th-century poet Christopher Smart (December 11). This piece announced a “failure contest” modeled on Smart’s career, intimating that Auster was already thinking about failure as a theme: “I wanted to single out the person who had done the least with the most, who had begun with every advantage, every talent, every expectation of worldly success, and had come to nothing.”24 Though tongue-in-cheek, with targets unclear, Auster was arch and satirical. His tone and the lampoon recall Richard Farina, widely popular for his campus novel about Cornell University, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966). This tone was not unique; Joseph Heller’s Catch- 22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut’s novels had led the way. Auster writes that around this time he chose “Harpo Marx as his spiritual father” and notes that he’d been trying to write a screenplay that was “part Buster Keaton movie, part philosophical tap dance.”25 Black humor was his preferred reaction to the times, but in this attention space there were a lot of Buster Keaton cinephiles.
As it happened, a real-1 ife Christopher Smart came into Auster’s life and provided material. The “legendary, forgotten novelist H. L. Humes,” who helped to found the Paris Review in the 1950s and wrote two promising novels, The Underground City and Men Die, began hanging around campus.26 A “couple of friends” took Auster to meet the unstable Humes at the Metropole bar at Forty-Eighth and Broadway. No doubt the Paris Review aspect intrigued him. Humes had been handing out money to passersby at the university, and Auster described him as “a ravaged, burnt-out writer who had run aground on the shoals of his own consciousness.”27 Auster allowed “Doc,” as Humes called himself, to crash at his apartment, only to find that he would not decamp. Humes’ followers found him and they “did nothing but sit, eat pizza, smoke marijuana, and talk.” Lydia Davis was not amused, and Auster “had a number of term papers to write.”28 Finally Humes departed. In the end, despite the Paris detour, he was dutiful, graduating on time, though he stayed off and on at his mother’s house in New Jersey to do so. But this period supplied Auster with a warning against personal indulgence and the kernel of his first fiction, which was anything but post-modern.
His sketch of Humes, written in 1969 or 1970, was titled “Marshall Dokk at Big Man’s,” and it was part of a planned twelve-chapter book to be titled The Death of Walter Raleigh. In the sketch Dokk is a translator of Italian literature, a monologist full of complex paranoias, who condescends to entertain Auster in “Big Mary’s bar on the waterfront.” The narrator writes that “I have not eaten in two days and he has offered to buy me a meal. Afterwards we drink our coffee and I feel a queasy contentment as my digestive juices flow once again.”29 This, the first explicit instance of the hunger theme in Auster’s prose, comes in the context of self-satire at giving in to “Doc” Humes. The narrator (Auster) is an emphatic counterpoint to the type of the “student follower.” “Big Mary’s” (possibly a later emendation) was a bar in Tampa that Auster visited in 1970 during his summer as a seaman.