Friday, March 03, 2006

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Okay, let me just say that I was wrong about Auster. Which isn’t to say that I now miraculously love The New York Trilogy (I don’t) or that I’m going to run out and reread the back-catalog (I’ve read plenty enough already, thank you), but he has definitely redeemed himself in my eyes with this book. It’s back to basics good-storytelling that calls to mind his screenplay for “Smoke.” He explores those serendipitous connections between people, how their joys and sorrows overlap, impinge, spark.

It’s about Nathan Glass, a retired insurance salesman who has made it through cancer and come to Brooklyn to die. But soon after he arrives in the borough he grew up in, he meets up with his long-lost nephew and an assortment of other characters that make his last years anything but quiet. Tom Wood, Nathan’s nephew, was once a literary scholar with promise, destined to academic greatness, but when Nathan finds him washed up and dejected at 30, working in a used bookshop, he knows he has to do something to rescue his nephew’s future. Add to this Harry, the intellectually sharp gay owner of the bookshop with a nefarious past, Tom’s delinquent, disappeared sister Aurora, Nancy, the B.P.M. (Beautiful Perfect Mother) that Tom dotes on from afar, and Nathan’s daughter Rachel with whom he is trying to make amends. Interspersed between these stories are Nathan’s collection of “follies,” the tragic, sometimes hilarious circumstances that occur in life that he assembles in an ever-growing manuscript.
In addition to the wonderful characters and stories in this book, I enjoyed the details. I lived in New England for a short time, and love little details that take me back to the East Coast: place names, New York idiosyncrasies (especially Brooklyn, my favorite borough), delis, and the distinctive accents, speech patterns and personalities those regions create. I also loved that they visit Vermont, a state that will always melt my heart because I spent such formative (college) years there.

In more ways that one, I did not want this book to end.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Misha, I haven't read The Brooklyn Follies, and don't intend to (I stopped with Auster after Mr. Vertigo, except for some of the nonfiction he's published since then). But this book seems, from the description you give, to be as self-referential and semi-autobiographical as all of Auster's other writing. You can read more about the young, washed-up nephew; the delinquent sister; the settings (Brooklyn, where Auster lives, and Vermont, where he summers--not far from Marlboro, in fact) in almost all of Auster's work--e.g., Vermont in its nonfictional form in the essay "Why Write?" or fictionalized in, if I remember correctly, Leviathan, among others. If you really want to play literary detective, add the work of Lydia Davis and Siri Hustvedt to your reading list (compare the "house in the country" both Auster and Davis mention--not far from me, in Millbrook, NY, I believe, which town also features in Auster's The Music of Chance--or the house in France they both mention (Davis's "St. Martin" and Auster's "The Red Notebook"); notice that the main character in Hustvedt's The Blindfold is named "Iris" (i.e., the palindrome of "Siri"), as is a character in Leviathan, published the same year. It all got a little tiresome, for me.

Though I'm pretty worn out with Auster, I still maintain that his absolute masterpiece is his first full-length prose work, The Invention of Solitude, which blends memoir, biography, family history, and a lot of intertextual reading into, for me, his most moving book. He also wrote it before his prose got sloppy and clichéd (opening, at random, to Mr. Vertigo, I find, on p. 21, "No matter how hard I tried to hurt him, he never let me get under his skin, never gave me the satisfaction of scoring a point against him. He wasn't simply winning the war between us, he was winning every damned battle of that war..."). His more recent work is, I'll admit, "good storytelling," but the story at the heart of The Invention of Solitude--the death of his father, the birth of his son, the breakup of his first marriage--is also good writing, and pretty compelling to this reader, at least. It's one point in the back catalog worth visiting if you haven't already.