Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University he lived in France for four years. Since 1947 he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Walter Clairborne Rawley: He is an orphan boy living in Saint Louis. Walter, called Walt, lives with his uncle Slim and aunt Peggy until he meets Master Yehudi. He is taught by Master Yehudi how to fly.
Master Yehudi: Master Yehudi isn’t his real name, which he never told. He becomes the master and mentor of Walt when he gets him off the street and makes a bargain with him. He speaks with a strange accent because he is Hungarian but nevertheless his words have power. He was born in Budapest and came to America as a young boy and grew up in Brooklyn.
“You know nothing.”
“I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime. You have the gift.”
“United we stand. Divided we fall.”
Mother Sue: She is called Mother Sioux by Walt because she is an Indian, an Oglala Sioux. She is the housekeeper of Master Yehudi. She looks like a man with her broad shoulders, muscles and large hands. She strongly believes in Walt’s ability to fly because she saw her brother and father do the impossible. Her husband and daughter were killed in an accident.
Aesop: He is a crippled black living with Master Yehudi. Yehudi is also a teacher and mentor to him because he owes his life to his master. Aesop’s Mother died of TB when he was a baby. The Master found him and started educating the young black. He is a genius and wants to study at an University. Is loved by the Master as if he were his own son. Aesop talks like an English Lord.
Mrs. Marion Witherspoon: Master Yehudi loves Mrs. Witherspoon, or “Mrs. W” as Walt refers to her but she has already turned the master down in marriage three times. She is a beautiful woman with red hair and blue eyes but she doesn’t behave like a lady. She drinks a lot and has a sharp tongue. She is a friend of the family and a business partner, who supports Master Yehudi’s projects. She is a widow but because she invested money cleverly she’s quite rich.
68 years after Walt met Master Yehudi on a day that changed him completely he writes down the story of his life.
Master Yehudi chooses Walt because he is the smallest, dirtiest and most abject. He tells Walt, who is nine years old, that he is not better than an animal, that he is just a piece of human nothingness. And he goes an telling him that he wants to teach him how to fly. Yehudi promises that they both will be millionaires when Walt can show his flying in public. Master Yehudi wants Walt to go with him and the boy decides to do so because his uncle and aunt, who he’s living with, aren’t fine people. Slim and Peggy are willing to let the boy go without a penny changing hands. They are happy to get rid of Walt. Walt and his new master agree that if he hasn’t taught Walt to fly by his thirteenth birthday, he can chop off the master’s head.
So the both of them get on a train and leave Saint Louis. Walt realises that he might have gotten himself into a mess and is afraid of Master Yehudi. And he only stays with the stranger because of his promise to turn him into a millionaire.
Yehudi wants Walt to trust him and do what he wants because then he will be able to fly.
For the first six months Walt only thinks about running away although they feed him, give him a room of his own and don’t spank him. He is surprised how patient they are with him even when he runs away but nevertheless hates Sue, Aesop and the master. He hates Yehudi for his sarcasm and the insults he hurls in Walt’s direction showing him how worthless he is and Aesop for being hunchbacked, jagged and black.
Walt has never been to school, which is a fact that makes his master happy. Yehudi believes that the dumber Walt is the better it is for both of them. He now begins to break Walt’s spirit to get him off the ground which isn’t easy for him because he loves Walt and believes in him. But he never shows his feelings for Walt.
Walter becomes sick because of being out in the cold. When Mother Sue looks after him until he recovers his hatred for her is transformed into love. He starts to like Aesop too when he listens to Aesop telling the master not to be so hard to him. And even his attitude towards the master changes.
Now Walters initiation begins. He experiences things that change his seeing the world. Each test is more terrible than the test before. Walt is burried alive, flogged with a bullwhip, thrown from a galloping horse and lashed to the roof of the barn for two days without food or water. He drinks cow piss and eats horseshit and even cuts off the upper joint of his left pinky. Walt does all these things because Master Yehudi tells him to. It has nothing to do with love nor hatred for his master, he does the things because Yehudi is the man that promised to make him fly. They have their bargain and both never forget it. And if Walter isn’t able to fly at his thirteenth birthday he is going to cut off his master’s head. There is nothing personal about doing so, it is a simple mater of justice.
Master Yehudi wears the pinky joint Walt had to cut off on a leather thong around his neck. This necklace is supposed to remind Yehudi of the debt he owes Walt. The master promises to give it back to Walt when he is able to fly.
What still stands before Walt are the stages of mental struggle and his master turned into a gentle guide. He has to count every blade of straw in the stall, stand on one leg for an entire day and repeat his master’s name ten thousand times. Walt voluntary learns the letters and numbers with Aesop’s help.
When the master begins to stay away long and often he feels a little bit deserted. He hungers for his masters affections. But Master Yehudi is courting Mrs. Witherspoon and getting his heart broken in the process.
Walt finally shows the others his flying as a present during a Christmas dinner. When his master sees Walt hovering inches over the floor he smiles as tears run down his cheeks. He gives Walt the necklace while the others gape in wonder.
They keep on with the training to make a profitable career possible for Walter because even tricksters and charlatans can do the stunt of the floating girl which puts the real levitators out of business. Because Walt has gone as far as his master when he was young Yehudi can help Walt with advice but the boy has to discover the essential things by himself.
Aesop can go off to Yale which is very important for him.
Walt and the master move to Mrs. Witherspoons house. The master is crushed because he blames himself for the deaths of his friends. When Yehudi falls apart Walt starts to resent him for his lack of inner toughness. In that time Mrs. Witherspoon and Walter bacome friends. Two months later the master finds to himself.
Because his master doesn’t understand the first thing about women Walter tries to marry him off to Mrs. Witherspoon but the master makes a lot of mistakes without realising it.
They go out on tour with their show. Many things have changed between Walt and Yehudi. No one is less important than the other. Everyone of them does his job and together they make it work. Walt is on the brink of becoming a star when they meet Uncle Slim. He wants twenty five percent of their profit. But Master Yehudi and Walter just leave him behind. Uncle Slim is a born loser but he finally found his mission in life and this mission is to make Walts life hell. Walt knows that Slim will appear someday without warning and smash his happiness.
Five month later Walt is kidnapped by Slim and used to blackmail master Yehudi. But one day before pay-day Walter escapes. Slim isn’t captured by the police. The story about his disappearance makes it to the front page in a lot of newspapers.
Walt begins to recognise changes about his master. He is less imposing and more thin and as he will get to know he suffers from cancer.
Walter plays to packed houses in every city. The new show is a huge success. But because of the puberty Walt has terrible headaches after every show and has to give up flying. They had had a victory over gravity but now it hits back.
After this terrible incident Walt spends three years tracking down Uncle Slim. When he finally finds Slim he kills him. And starts a new life as a criminal, working for Bingo Walsh. He climbs the ladder, has a lot of women and makes himself a home in the organisation. He opens a night club and is quite happy with his life. Walt becomes Mr. Vertigo with the smooth tongue and the elegant manners. Walt the Wonder Boy is dead. He is lying under the earth with Master Yehudi.
I really like the book because it is abstract and real at the same time. Mr Vertigo is an astonishing and sharply written novel. Paul Auster investigates in a fascinating way the life of an orphan who is set on his way to stardom. I especially liked how the author shows the changes that go on in Walt.