The Mets nabbed big free agents this off-season, which raises the question: How does Paul Auster’s oeuvre change if the Amazins’ become regular World Series contenders? His hard-luck, Mets-loving characters wouldn’t work as fans of the Yankees (or a Yankees-like Mets). In Hand to Mouth, Auster admits that in his late twenties and early thirties, “everything I touched turned to failure,” including his marriage, his bank account, and his writing. That’s OK, though—his best characters are dealt the same lot and still make sure to check box scores that add up to another losing season. Slipping into dementia in an empty room on 69th Street, City of Glass‘s Daniel Quinn, the quintessential Austerian writer-turned-detective, attempts “to work his way through the Mets’ lineup, position by position.” He can only remember center fielder Mookie Wilson, né William Wilson—a nod to Poe’s short story that’s also Quinn’s mystery novelist pen name. Unfazed by his inability to recall the starting rotation, he concludes, “the Mets would finish in last place again, and no one would suffer.” Because it’s Auster, folks will suffer, but for more universal truths and cycles.
Per usual, coincidence powers the author’s latest novel, The Brooklyn Follies. Nathan Glass—planning to spend his 60th at Shea—undergoes a transformation precipitated by lung cancer and a divorce from his wife of 33 years. A Wittgenstein-fortified, Svevo-loving 59-year-old retired life-insurance salesman, he’s an avuncular curmudgeon who moves from Bronxville to Brooklyn in the early spring hoping to find a “silent end to [his] sad and ridiculous life,” though he knows the cancer’s in remission. A native but an outsider, Glass was born in Brooklyn and left with his parents at age three. He doesn’t return until he finds himself “a two-bedroom garden apartment on First Street, just half a block away from Prospect Park.”
To keep busy upon landing, Glass begins writing The Book of Human Folly, composed on envelopes and assorted paper scraps, to document “in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible” of his and others’ lives, from ancient to present times. (His projected philosophy of the prosaic calls to mind the one found in that other Glass’s diaristic excerpts in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.)
Not much time is spent on the miscellany; instead, Auster introduces his narrator to the broadest cast of characters since 1989’s Moon Palace (not counting the Auggie Wren films). Auster has never been shy about his love of Brooklyn, but this is his dearest paean to that borough, home of “the most welcoming, most human of all American voices.” It’s a City of Glass–style map of all the steps Auster’s taken from Prospect Heights to Cobble Hill. His Hallmark riffs on local color, “its shifting jumble of white and brown and black, its multi-layered chorus of foreign accents, its children and its trees, its striving middle-class families, its lesbian couples, its Korean grocery stores,” read like breathy Big Apple erotica.
Among the chorus of lifers, transplants, and New Jerseyites is the son of his dead sister: Tom Wood, a/k/a Dr. Thumb, ex–grad student, ex-cabbie, current overweight bookstore employee. (The secondhand discourse on his “comparative study” of Poe and Thoreau is a fun read, and his comments about bliss through drudgery while navigating a taxi across an empty city are beautiful.) Tom’s boss is the tragic but ebullient Harry Brightman, a queeny, Buffalo-born bookstore owner who has Recognitions-style art fraud in his past and Nathaniel Hawthorne counterfeiting in his future. Glass has run-ins with his married daughter in Jersey; Tom’s wild-child, sperm-bank-spoiling sister Aurora; and her stoic nine-year-old, Lucy. Eventually, Glass’s family encompasses an entire house and ‘hood of both blood and non-blood relations.
Auster aims big (Melville and Kafka drop by), but the book is strongest when it most resembles a television drama, Glass focusing keenly on the people with whom he’s drinking or sleeping. Reflecting that spirit, his Book of Human Folly eventually becomes something more gracious, an attempt to “rescue the stories and facts and documents” of others “before they disappeared—and shape them into a continuous narrative, the narrative of a life.” And such is the nature of Austerian chance that if even one of these characters didn’t exist, the schema would topple.
Giving away plot details would dissolve the mystery, but it’s enough to say characters lose weight, discuss Jacob and Esau, escape sketchy relationships and find love in more unlikely ones, take trips to Vermont (with its “thousand leaves of an aspen tree fluttering like wounded moths”), deal with a North Carolina religious zealot, break vows of silence, die, get clean bills of health, leave lucrative wills, and screw. As Glass says toward the end, “there comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.”
Then there are those moments when time supposedly stops. Despite emphasizing happenstance, The Brooklyn Follies possesses a final, world-altering twist that feels too ponderously placed. The novel is more joyful and community based than previous existential Auster offerings, and when the 9-11 finale happens, you might feel too keen a tug for a wider, Oprah-tested audience. As a result, unlike his past work, it fails to haunt, even with NYC’s biggest group tragedy looming as the backdrop to Glass’s “brilliant blue sky.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 13, 2005