February 2006

Ned Vizzini

fiction

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Ah, Brooklyn. Are you sick of it yet? Maybe you need to walk into a Los Angeles Starbucks and spy a lily-white newborn in a Brooklyn hoodie, or travel from Brooklyn to Australia and have people ask if you know the Beastie Boys. Or search Amazon for books with “Brooklyn” in the title and start sifting through twenty-six hundred results.

Paul Auster joins, and, until the Amazon gods throw him down, dominates that hip crew with his 13th novel, The Brooklyn Follies. To be fair, he isn’t jumping on any bandwagons; he’s been a resident of Brooklyn for years and writes about it with a detached grace that will up his property values. “I was looking for a quiet place to die,” his stand-in Nathan Glass declares to open Follies. “Someone suggested Brooklyn.” It’s a reminder: many have, and not so quietly.

But why Follies? With death on the line right from the beginning, why aren’t we reading The Brooklyn Tragedies or The Brooklyn Disasters? After all, Auster is at his best -- he’s one of the best -- when covering despair, hopelessness, and mental collapse. In Follies, he has a heartwarming tale for us, and it doesn’t quite come off naturally.

The follies in question are Nathan’s. He’s a writer, of course -- ostensibly a retired life-insurance salesman -- who has taken to cataloging his life’s missed opportunities. Nathan’s project gives Auster the chance to leap into his tales of those who have tales to tell, and within this construct he excels. (In his last book, 2004’s fantastic Oracle Night, I think at one point I was reading about a writer who was researching another writer who had written an old screenplay in which another writer was trapped in a bunker full of phone books.) One might be tempted to think that the novel will be a trip through Nathan’s bungles, but Auster focuses doggedly on his biggest: he has no family, and he’s going to spend the rest of the book picking one up.

First is his long-lost nephew, Tom Wood, whom he meets stocking shelves in a bookstore. Once high-flying grad student, Tom freaked out and plunged to the depths of cab driver, packing on thirty pounds in the process. He’s a funny, lovable sad-sack, but we wonder why we meet him on the way up, after he’s shed the cabby gig for the much more respectable position of independent Brooklyn bookseller, when it would have been more fun to see Uncle Nathan drag him out of the hack pit -- a real disaster, not a folly.

In any case, Nathan takes back his role as Tom’s uncle (this is a fatherless Brooklyn; there are only uncles) and begins mentoring him at daily lunches. In the process, he befriends the bookstore’s owner, a gay scamp named Harry Brightman, née Harry Dunkel. (Light and dark, see? Some find them trite; I’ve always been a fan of Auster’s daring onomatopoeic names). Here the narrative begins to crackle. Nathan is bitter and hilarious -- he curses, which looks absurd and wonderful in Auster’s sparkling prose; he’s like the grumpy lost uncle from that Salinger family -- and Harry, the dangerous one, is incandescent, especially when he hatches a wild scheme to fake a million-dollar Nathanial Hawthorne manuscript. With a deft hand, Auster has brought us into the territory he knows best: literary detective work, intellectual mystery.

And then it vanishes. A shadowy villain from Brightman/Dunkel’s past, barely given an introduction, shows up and puts an end to his scheme. In its place, we’re presented with the plot point of Lucy, a nine-year-old mute who shows up at Nathan’s door calling Tom Wood "uncle." There is nothing wrong with nine-year old mutes per se; this word “precious” is being thrown around too much lately; sometimes little kids aren’t precious and sometimes they are and it’s all right. The problem is that Lucy doesn’t bring the danger or excitement that the Hawthorne plot did, and all of a sudden we’re on road trips, with Nathan fetching Tom Wood a wife upstate before rescuing his niece (Lucy’s mother) from the Carolinas. He also manages to get himself an oddly stereotyped Italian matron girlfriend.

Didn’t this guy come to Brooklyn to die? What happened? Who knew what he was capable of! The lessons here are real and sincere, but the Nathan Glass at the start of the book is a scrooge we’re rooting for; the one at the end is Scrooge in those angelic robes that made him look a little off. Interestingly, it’s the two plots that fizzle up in failure -- the Hawthorne manuscript and an equally intriguing side story about an abused Hispanic waitress -- that make The Brooklyn Follies worth reading.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Henry Holt
ISBN: 0805077146
320 Pages