Why I can’t make my mind up on Paul Benjamin’s ‘Squeeze Play’

One of the best modules I ever took at university was on detective fiction. This might sound odd as I very rarely read detective fiction and that course didn’t really change that, but what it did do was introduce me to my favourite author of all time: Paul Auster. It even lead to me dedicating a million years to writing my dissertation on him (okay, it was more like a few months but anyone who’s written a dissertation knows how painful they can be!).

Since then, I’ve been slowly adding to my collection of Auster books, the majority being found in second hand bookshops, which are my favourite places to buy books. The most recent addition to my collection was Auster’s first book he published, which is actually under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin.

Squeeze Play pretty conventionally fits in the hard-boiled detective genre, featuring a lone-wolf type investigator called Max Klein. A successful ex-baseball player, George Chapman, comes to his office and shows him a letter he’s received trying to blackmail him, along with a thinly veiled threat on his life. It’s down to Max to find out who’s behind it, and why, whilst the clock is ticking for George.

So, what did I think about it? Truthfully, I’m a bit torn. I can’t decide whether to form an opinion on the book itself, or whether to compare it in the wider spectrum of all the Auster stuff I’ve read. I guess I’ll do both.

As a book itself, it’s brilliant. Very Raymond Chandler ‘Big Sleep’-esque. Benjamin (Auster) has a knack for giving his characters a great level of depth, and he captures that scene of dark New York in such a way that you can picture the grotty diners and depressing office that Max works from. The plot is also gripping, with twists and turns along the way, making you question how reliable the ‘truth’ from each person is. The book is conventional, it sits well within its genre, and it’s the kind of book I imagine most authors would be proud to have their (real) name on.

It’s this point that brings me to the other perspective I have on this book. Auster didn’t put his name on it, and I’m wondering why that is. It’s certainly good enough, so it can’t be that. I believe it’s because it’s not very Auster-like. Whenever people ask me to recommend them a book, it’s always one of Auster’s, and the reason I always give is that they are unlike any other author’s work I have read. They keep you guessing, they swerve away from any conventional plot you could imagine, they break boundaries by duplicating characters, blurring the lines of reality, and Auster even writes himself into one! They’re a challenge, but one you’re happy to take. Squeeze Play wasn’t really like this at all, and so in my mind it felt like it fell a bit short.

Auster is such a talented writer that I always have the highest expectations for his work. Whilst Squeeze Play did keep me guessing to the last, it didn’t give me the same shock and confusion that some of his other work has given me. It did, however, give me an insight into his stepping stone to greater things – to the work he published using his real name.

All in all, I did enjoy Squeeze Play when I isolated it from anything else of Auster’s I’ve read. I’m just greedy and wanted more authorial rule-breaking, more confusion. In essence, I wanted more of a challenge.

Have any of you read any of Auster’s work?

Holly x

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