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Publisher's Summary

After losing his wife and two young sons in an airplane crash, professor David Zimmer spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity. Then, watching television one night, he sees a clip from a lost film by the silent comedian Hector Mann. Zimmer soon finds himself embarking on a journey around the world to study the works of this mysterious figure who vanished from sight in 1929.

Presumed dead for 60 years, Hector Mann was a comic genius who had flashed briefly across American movie screens, tantalizing the public with the promise of a brilliant future. Then, just as the silent era came to an end, he walked out of his house one January morning and was never heard from again.

Zimmer's research leads him to write the first full-length study of Hector's films. Upon publication the following year, a letter turns up bearing a return address from New Mexico, supposedly written by Hector's wife. "Hector has read your book and would like to meet you. Are you interested in paying us a visit?" Is the letter a hoax, or is Hector Mann still alive? Torn between doubt and belief, Zimmer hesitates, until one night a strange woman appears on his doorstep and makes the decision from him, changing his life forever.

©2002 Paul Auster (P)2002 HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"One of Auster's best." ( Publishers Weekly)
"Mesmerizing....Paul Auster's narration of his own book, which is mostly told in the first person, is a part of the story's fascination....He reads skillfully....To press the play button is to succumb." ( AudioFile)
"Auster's signature fascination with the capriciousness of fate and adept use of the classic story-within-the-story motif are writ larger than ever in his brilliant, sage, and suspenseful tenth novel." ( Booklist)

What members say

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  • Overall
  • Gene
  • Agoura Hills, CA, USA
  • 10-05-04


I'm new to the Paul Auster universe, but this book won't be my last brush. There are many surprises here, but not the vulgar surprises of empty and meaningless complexity, something deeper and closer to the core of life's real mystery. We follow a fictitious actor from the silent era into several secret lives. If you are looking for a thriller, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a sober sort of entertainment mixed with despair, this is more like it.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • David A
  • Madison, WI, USA
  • 01-11-05

wonderful book, wonderful story

this was the first audio book that i listened to. i absolutely loved it and am looking forward to reading/listening to most of his work. there are two major strengths of this audio book. first, it is read by the author. for the audio books that i have listened to, the ones actually read by the author are so much richer and more expressive than those read by actors. the author, obviously, knew what s/he intened as the subtext of any particular passage and can convey that subtext through their voice. in addition, auster has an extremely pleasant voice and it was enjoyable to listen to him read it. the second strength of the book is the numerous intertwining plot-lines that are weaved together so well. in many ways, this is not simply a single story, but a richly told tapestry of stories spanning many years and several lives. to me, this made the book extremely enjoyable because each component of the overall plot was compelling, interesting, and well-told.

the only con of the book is that it had a bit of a downer for an ending, though this is just personal perference. the ending was not bad, but i was hoping for a happier ending.

in short, i cannot say enough to recommend this book. it will be well-worth your time and money.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Excellent writing, extraordinarily depressing

First, the good: the author is a superb writer. He is so good that even his descriptions of mundane actions and scenes are fascinating to read. Also, the concept behind the book is unique, and being a lover of old silent movies, I was hypnotized by the first few chapters. Now, the bad: this is the most depressing book I have ever read. The book tells you almost from page one that the narrator's wife and children were killed in a plane accident, the rest of the book occuring after that fact. So you'd think things would get better from that point, but they actually manage to get worse. There's an endless spiral of bleakness and crushed hopes in this book. In the last few paragraphs of the final chapter, the narrator calls the book his "compilation of sorrows." That it is. Do not entertain any hopes once you start this book. All hope is lost here.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Odd but compelling

This is the second Auster work I've been through. I didn't feel the anger of the primary character, nor the sadness. I just wasn't sold.

The plot, however, is so completely unique that I think you will listen hour after hour to see where it is all headed.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

A book men will love, ladies...

I'm not familiar with Paul Auster or his other works, but when I asked my boyfriend to recommend a book, this is what he told me to read. I can see why it would appeal to him. I knew a few pages in this particular book would appeal to a man more than a woman, but as a person who loves almost all genres, I gave it a try.

The story is depressing but we listeners know this from the start - anything that starts with what this guy has gone through will have a somber tone. For that matter, the reader was spot on for this tone, but the recording sounded a bit off (maybe aged?).

Personally it didn't really appeal to me but the story was intriguing so I stuck through to the end. Ladies, you may want to really think before getting this one. Guys, you may just like it. Silent movie fans, you will LOVE it.

If I were a man I might have given it 4 stars.

3 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

One of Auster's best

Mr. Auster did a fantastic job with the narration. His precise, rich voice matches his prose style better than the other narrators of his other books could do. I will say, however, that books like Timbuktu do well to have a different voice actor because of the main character's odd tone. Auster does not have the range of a professional actor, and cannot perform many distinct characters, but for this book his voice was perfect.

The story itself was fascinating and devastating. Auster does a great job of portraying a sane and calm person at the end of his rope. The only thing I did not like about the book was its title--it is somewhat forgettable.

  • Overall
  • Amber
  • Roseville, CA, United States
  • 10-21-10

Good, then boring, then depressing.

This story was dark, dark, dark. At first it was a kind of engaging mystery, and I was totally enthralled for the first third or so. Then things go from bad, to worse, to Shakespearean tragedy of epic porportions. I found all of the long back story about Hector boring, and the ending was bizarre. Not my cup of tea.

  • Overall
  • Peregrine
  • Los Angeles, CA, United States
  • 11-29-09

Compelling Narrative, ending is hard to take

Without giving too much away, I will say that although the story is compelling and Auster's reading is perfect, it's an extremely nihilistic work. Auster is essentially telling us that life itself is a waste of time!