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Timbuktu: A Novel Paperback – April 28, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 153 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In Timbuktu Paul Auster tackles homelessness in America using a dog as his point-of-view character. Strange as the premise seems, it's been done before, in John Berger's King, and it actually works. Filtering the homeless experience through the relentlessly unsentimental eye of a dog, both writers avoid miring their tales in an excess of melodrama. Whereas Berger's book skips among several characters, Timbuktu remains tightly focused on just two: Mr. Bones, "a mutt of no particular worth or distinction," and his master, Willy G. Christmas, a middle-aged schizophrenic who has been on the streets since the death of his mother four years before. The novel begins with Willy and Mr. Bones in Baltimore searching for a former high school English teacher who had encouraged the teenage Willy's writerly aspirations. Now Willy is dying and anxious to find a home for both his dog and the multitude of manuscripts he has stashed in a Greyhound bus terminal. "Willy had written the last sentence he would ever write, and there were no more than a few ticks left in the clock. The words in the locker were all he had to show for himself. If the words vanished, it would be as if he had never lived."

Paul Auster is a cerebral writer, preferring to get to his reader's gut through the brain. When Willy dies, he goes out on a sea of words; as for Mr. Bones, this is a dog who can think about metaphysical issues such as the afterlife--referred to by Willy as "Timbuktu":

What if no pets were allowed? It didn't seem possible, and yet Mr. Bones had lived long enough to know that anything was possible, that impossible things happened all the time. Perhaps this was one of them, and in that perhaps hung a thousand dreads and agonies, an unthinkable horror that gripped him every time he thought about it.
Once Willy dies and Mr. Bones is on his own, things go from bad to worse as the now masterless dog faces a series of betrayals, rejections, and disappointments. By stepping inside a dog's skin, Auster is able to comment on human cruelties and infrequent kindnesses from a unique world view. But reader be warned: the world in Timbuktu is a bleak one, and even the occasional moments of grace are short lived. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Meet discerning and sympathetic Mr. Bones, a dog who is unconditionally faithful to his troubled master, Willy G. Christmas. Auster's leading human character is once again a tormented writer from Brooklyn who blindly believes in his ideals and willingly chooses to become a vagabond (see, for instance, Leviathan, LJ 7/92). But the real hero is the four-legged creature who follows him on his impromptu journeys and leads readers through the story. Yes, he thinks and he understands, and although he cannot speak, he keenly observes and contemplates the questionable logic of human behavior. The beginning of the story is promising; the middle gets suspiciously trivial but is rescued by a clever and moving ending. This is not the kind of work Auster has been praised for, but it proves his hunger for innovation once again. Timbuktu will undoubtedly provoke mixed responses, but that is the price of originality. There is something plain yet mysteriously intricate beneath Auster's trademark smooth writing.
-AMirela Roncevic, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 2 edition (April 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428944
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312428945
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (153 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #344,479 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Travels in the Scriptorium, The Brooklyn Follies, and Oracle Night. I Thought My Father Was God, the NPR National Story Project anthology, which he edited, was also a national bestseller. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I'm surprised by some of the nasty reviews here, especially from Kirkus. In truth, this book is too slim and too sad to appeal to the masses at all, and I'm absolutely certain Auster didn't see this as a potential best-seller.
It's a flawed book -- too short, and not completely fleshed-out. It reads like it was written completely by feel, and in fact I heard Auster describe it this way, since he was intending for these two characters to be in a longer novel, but they just took over the story by themselves.
But I wanted to say that I was very, very moved by the story...enough so that I couldn't sleep the night I read it. I think Paul Auster explores loneliness like almost no contemporary writer. I don't understand anybody writing this off as a sentimental doggy story. Mr. Bones is a dog only because dogs are the ultimate disenfranchised group; even religions have no dispensation for them. I thought Auster hit on something really important here, that the circumstances of the story perfectly cut to the heart of the absolute lack of security in loving someone.
I'm frustrated by the book, too, mostly because I think Auster basically started the story near the end and didn't know where the heck else to go with it. Much of the middle feels like filler. But these are two characters who will stick with me a long time. Not Auster's best, but well worth reading.
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Format: Paperback
Once you've read Timbuktu, you may wonder if author Paul Auster is the quintessential dog reincarnated--so sensitive, authentic, and convincing is his portrayal of the mutt Mr. Bones. He is the canine sidekick (and doppelganger) of the sympathetic Willy G. Christmas, a devastated bard who, much too early in life, has found himself homeless and dying and thus trekking across Maryland in search of 316 Calvert Street. These two original characters share protagonist struggles in this heart-crushing, slice-of-life story.
Through a successful omniscient, third-person narrator, Timbuktu portrays a climactic period in the lives of these two discounted characters. Their street experiences have an interesting and very subtle effect of a hybrid parable/fable which is easy to miss upon a casual reading. Willy has spent his life writing and abusing his body due to psychological condition and a deep hurt that is never (and need not be) identified. His conversations with the cognizant Mr. Bones while teetering on the outskirts of a cold society to which Willy has been generous and compassionate are engrossing as they illustrate both the wit and deterioration of a bright mind. But Auster's story doesn't shout, is not didactic. Instead its subtleties may cause readers to reconsider the demise of community--for people as well as domestic companions.
Auster's writing is smooth as silk but his story has barbs. After reading this book, Willy and Mr. Bones continued to haunt my thoughts. Timbuktu is so smoothly delivered that it took me days to realize the concealed ethic in this humanitarian story. This is a seemingly simple book with hidden power, worthy of any reader.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm an Auster fan, and recognize the recurrent themes and Auster-isms pointed out in previous reviews. However, I'm in a miniscule minority (so far just one) when I assert this book not be about men and dogs, but about words and knowledge.
How do we know the things we know, and how accurately do we know them when they are described by words? When we read a book, we tend to think the words are absolute in expressing ideas. They are, after all, the author's tools.
Mr Bones' idea of the human world is convoluted-not-clarified by words. Mr Bones' notions of what things are is not so clear when all he has to go on is the word. What is Timbuktu? A symbol of heaven? But what if pets are not allowed? Or is it just a dry, dusty little city in the sw Sahara?
What is this "vacation" the Joneses are going on, when Mr Bones' only idea is Mom-san's "I'm on vacation" at the end of house chores?
There is a word on p 26 used to describe Willy's career: vagabondage. A real word. A word that consists of two words (vagabond and bondage) nearly opposite in meaning, hinged on a third: "bond". This is pretty heady stuff, not unlike the Mirror Fugues in Bach's "Art of Fugue".
In "In the Country of Last Things" there is a passage about the deterioration of words, of how they wear out and lose their meanings. This theme is prominent in this work.
Then there is Mr Bones. Aka Cal Ripken Junior the Second. Aka Sparky. Same creature, and just as real to each of his "boon companions". What is this three-named creature? Is he any different in any of those identities?
This one looks like it's ready for a doctoral dissertation right out of the box. And my favorite Auster. So far.
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Format: Paperback
Paul Auster is generally a master of his craft - using language well. This book is no exception. However, this is a book that reads as if it were crafted rather than grown out of the characters. Willie, as a homeless, mentally ill individual, is developed as a realistic character avoiding many of the cliches that are ascribed to such a character. However, none of the characters Mr. Bones meets after Willie's death are more than cardboard characters.
As for Mr. Bones himself, each reader will have a private opinion as to how well the dog is portrayed - an opinion based on the reader's presuppositions about dogs. That is to say that the author does not develop Mr. Bones in a manner to cause the reader to suspend disbelief if the portrayal is significantly different from the reader's opinions on dogs.
Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable read - and a reasonable reread - especially for dog lovers. But if you've not read Paul Auster before, this is not the book on which you should judge the quality of his work.
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