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The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

The Book of Human Folly

In his twelfth novel, Paul Auster tackles familiar terrain both psychologically and topographically: the lonely man starting over in New York City. In this episode, our introvert is Nathan Glass, a man who must confront his alienation through a project, in this case, something he calls "The Book of Human Folly". In this opus, he plans to record the errors, or follies of his life. Time is nigh for Nathan, he has retired from his job as an insurance agent, he is divorced, his daughter still hates him for his adulterous indiscretions during his marriage to her mother and he has been diagnosed with cancer. That's just the first ten pages, people.

Nathan distracts himself with an obsession -- stalking a Latina waitress, Marina. We as readers are led to believe that this will be the plot arc. But as so frequently happens in Auster's stories, once on a quest for romance or valor, our protagonist finds a family and a way to belong. This begins when Nathan frequents a local bookstore where he finds his nephew, Tom Wood, a would-be academic turned shop clerk. He hasn't seen Tom in seven years. Tom introduces Nathan to his boss, the boisterous Harry Brightman with a shady past, and also to his neighborhood obsession, the "BPM" or "Beautiful Perfect Mother," a woman to whom he has never spoken. The milieu is intimate, as only a neighborhood before 9/11 in New York can be.

Auster has crafted many novels and he is still a wonder at backstory. Whether he is recounting Tom's life before Nathan, or an anecdote involving Kafka and a doll, you are always willing to leave the present story for a voyage to the past and back again. The transitions are seamless. I'm glad he still works hard to make sure that no threads dangle.

Things in the novel turn on an axis when Lucy, Tom's niece, appears on his doorstep and the two bachelors struggle with the best way to parent. Complications arise when they realize that Lucy refuses to talk. The girl is victim to religious inculcation and we don't know exactly how deeply.

Names derive often from religion and Auster's character names are also descendants. The last names in this novel, Glass, Wood, and Brightman, tell the reader what Auster's characters are to other people: they're unreliable and transparent, they're strong but unemotional, or they are dramatic and plucky. Their first names tell us what they are to themselves.

Nathan Glass is fragile on the outside. On the inside, like Nathan in the Old Testament, he is a prophet. In the Bible, Nathan warned David that he would be punished for slaying a man just to obtain his wife. Nathan Glass is also a prophet but this time he does not bear maledictions. When people listen to him and he listens to himself, magical things happen.

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
December 27, 2005
Henry Holt and Company
Hardcover, $24
ISBN: 0-8050-7714-6
320 pages