The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. Henry Holt & Co., 2005; $24; 306 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Nathan Glass has come to Brooklyn to die. Divorced, estranged from his only daughter, the retired life insurance salesman seeks solitude and anonymity. Then Nathan finds his long-lost nephew, Tom Wood, working in a local bookstore -- a far cry from the brilliant academic career he'd begun when Nathan saw him last. Tom's boss is the charismatic Harry Brightman, whom fate has also brought to the "ancient kingdom of Brooklyn, New York." Through Tom and Harry, Nathan's world gradually broadens to include a new set of acquaintances -- not to mention a stray relative or two -- and leads him to a reckoning with his past.Among the many twists in the delicious plot are a scam involving a forgery of the first page of The Scarlet Letter , a disturbing revelation that takes place in a sperm bank, and an impossible, utopian dream of a rural refuge from the unbearable realities of modern life. Meanwhile, the wry and acerbic Glass has undertaken something he calls The Book of Human Folly , in which he proposes "to set down in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man." But life takes over instead, and Nathan's despair is swept away as he finds himself more and more implicated in the joys and sorrows of others.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Nathan Glass, a retired life insurance salesman estranged from his family and facing an iffy cancer prognosis, is "looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn." What he finds, though, in this ebullient novel by Brooklyn bard Auster (Oracle Night), is a vital, bighearted borough brimming with great characters.... As Nathan recovers his soul through immersion in their lives, Auster meditates on the theme of sanctuary in American literature, from Hawthorne to Poe to Thoreau.... But the book's presiding spirit is Brooklyn's first bard, Walt Whitman, as Auster embraces the borough's multitudes -- neighborhood characters, drag queens, intellectuals manqué, greasy-spoon waitresses, urbane bourgeoisie -- while singing odes to moonrise over the Brooklyn Bridge.... The result is an affectionate portrait of the city as the ultimate refuge of the human spirit.
Booklist: Just when you think you've got Auster pegged, he shape-shifts. Not that his mesmerizing new novel isn't instantly recognizable as an Auster tale, what with its beautifully ruminative narration, obsessive charting of seemingly quotidian details, cleverly meandering and impressionistically noirish plot, and literary allusions, in this case, to Hawthorne, Kafka, and Gaddis. But this addition to his increasingly tender cycle of love songs to Brooklyn is his most down-to-earth, sensuous, and socially conscious novel to date.... Auster also takes subtle measure of a time that will live in infamy, the era of the 2000 election and September 11, 2001.
The New York Times Book Review : An incredibly loud finale, with lots of smoke.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Paul Auster, born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, is the bestselling author of Oracle Night, The Book of Illusions, and Timbuktu. 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 30 languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"Brooklyn is becoming the Big City for writers. Everyone who writes seems to have moved his or her laptop to a desk in a Brooklyn brownstone.""Well, enough of us are here now."
"Your book was not at all what I expected." I said, adding that I enjoyed it, and that I was interested in Mr. Auster's long-time fascination with Hawthorne.
"He's a kindred spirit. There's something about his mind, his storytelling, his life. It's almost a personal connection."
"You, like he, had a long exile in Europe."
"Well, that was probably the biggest mistake he ever made -- I think. There was that terrible business in Rome with his daughter who nearly died of the Roman fever -- malaria. I think it broke him. She, of course, never really recovered and died. His writing dried up after that. He lost contact with the United States."
"Plus," I said, "by the time Hawthorne and his family got home, Hawthorne was physically quite sick -- cancer."
"He wasn't yet 60 when he died," Auster said. "Not yet 60."
"His wife Sophia was so good to him and their children. Do you remember their honeymoon?"
"Yes, extraordinary. In Concord."
"The book -- Hawthorne in Concord by Philip McFarland -- is a lovely read. And Concord," I added, "with Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and his daughters, and who knows else, all living close to one another, was rather a modern-day literary Brooklyn."
Auster agreed, an agreement that seemed to carry with it a smile. He asked, "Did you ever see the little book that I did? Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa ? It's pretty charming, isn't it?"
"Yes. How could it be otherwise?" Sophia Hawthorne and then-seven-year-old Una and two-month-old Rose left on a trip to visit her parents. Five-year-old Julian was alone with Hawthorne. The novelist-father took notes on the 20 days that he and his son lived alone together, with the help of a housekeeper who did the cooking and cleaning. Auster's introduction opens the book. The book, writes Booklist , "is a tiny classic of parental writing about children."
Auster didn't read Hawthorne seriously until he was in his 20s. "He just passed me by as an adolescent and then I must have been about 24 or 25 when I first read The Scarlet Letter and then started reading the stories. Ever since then, he's been an important figure for me."
After graduation in 1970 with an M.A. from Columbia University, Auster signed on to an oil tanker. Headed for France, Auster lived there for four years, writing and translating poetry.