I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain. I hadn’t been back in fifty-six years, and I remembered nothing.
Auster has a good way with opening lines, doesn’t he? I was instantly drawn in to this novel, which by its end had become one of my favourites.
This book is all about Nathan and Tom, Uncle and Nephew respectively, and Nathan Glass is our narrator. Nathan is in remission from lung cancer, but has no idea how long he will last, he is divorced and estranged from his only daughter, so becomes rather a surrogate father to Tom. Tom, meanwhile, could have had an academic career in literature, but dropped out, hiding away in a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn. Nathan couldn’t have been more surprised to find him there, having not been in touch for a while and assuming he’d be a professor by now.
The two men re-bond over lunch at Nathan’s favourite diner, where he flirts with the waitress Marina who indulges him. This will get him into trouble later with her jealous brute of a husband. Tom tells him about his boss, the former art dealer turned to books, Harry Brightman – a bit of a chancer with a record, but a good man really.
If Nathan flirts with Marina, Tom yearns from afar for the “B.P.M.” – the beautiful perfect mother, a young mother he often sees sitting on the stoop with her kids on his walk to and from work. But he hasn’t the courage to talk to her. Nathan takes the initiative and discovers her name is Nancy and that she makes jewellery, so he buys a necklace, intending to send it to Rachel – his daughter, in the hope that they can make things up.
Harry takes Nathan and Tom out to dinner, and Auster writes their evening’s discussion as a playscript. This dinner is an occasion at which Harry tells the pair about his ‘hotel existence’ – a philosophical imaginary refuge he has built and rebuilt in his mind since he was ten. As you may guess, this concept will prove important in the events to come.
All warm and cosy so far. Then two events happen that will change things…
Firstly, Harry takes Nathan and Tom into his plans for a forgery scam involving a fake manuscript of Rose Hawthorne’s (daughter of Nathaniel of The Scarlet Letter fame), he reckons he can make $100k from the buyer he has lined up for the fake being made. Nathan advises against it, but Harry is too invested in his project.
Secondly, Lucy arrives on the doorstep; she is the daughter of Tom’s sister, Nathan’s niece Aurora. Lucy is nine and a half, and appears to have run away, but refuses to talk. Neither Tom nor Nathan have any idea of how to get in touch with Lucy’s mother. Nathan takes her in, as Tom has no room and they start trying to track down the man that the former wild child Rory married. Nathan finds it hard to look after Lucy though, she’s still almost mute, so he makes arrangements with Tom’s stepsister to take her, and the two men plus Lucy embark on a road trip to Vermont. There will be plenty more incidents to come.
As in all Auster novels, there is plenty of talk about books, authors and writing to keep us on our toes, from Poe to Dickens to Kafka via Thoreau and others. Nathan is also compiling a book of writings, stories which he calls his “Book of Human Follies“. Between Nathan’s book and Harry’s “hotel existence” and the question over whether such a construct could ever exist in real life, there is plenty to occupy the reader philosophically. There’s a little bit of politics too, as the novel is set against the backdrop of the 2000 presidential elections.
First and foremost however, this is, a few incidents excepted, a warm-hearted and funny novel that is always entertaining. There is a Beckettian “fail better” flavour to Auster’s bittersweet portrait of the near impossibility of achieving the ‘American Dream’. You hope that these two men, who’d both had to settle for something less, will do better once life jerks them out of their individual ruts! The Brooklyn Follies is immensely readable, yet makes you think – as Auster’s novels always do, and I loved it. (10/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR
Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies (Faber, 2005) paperback, 320 pages.