The Brooklyn Follies

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

That Paul Auster is one of the most respected and distinctive modern American writers is certain, as is his having been for most of his career better appreciated abroad, especially in France, than in the United States. That has been changing since 1999, with his starting the Story Project for National Public Radio and the publication of four increasingly accessible novels: Timbuktu (1999), The Book of Illusions (2002), Oracle Night (2003), and now The Brooklyn Follies. Not that Auster’s fiction was ever particularly difficult, only that it has often seemed as European in its sensibility as it is American in its settings and references to mid-nineteenth century writers (such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville).

The big difference between Auster’s early and later work, though, may be traced back to his collaboration with director Ang Lee on the film Smoke (the 1995 adaptation, or expansive reimagining) of Auster’s very short story “Augie Wren’s Christmas Story” (1990), with its more fully realized, fleshed outseemingly real, or at least realisticcharacters. The characters of Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1986) are more or less stick figures, barely, if brilliantly, more than their names and chance encounters in a high-class but bare-bones game of mirror images, labyrinthine twists, and permutational possibilities worthy of Samuel Beckett (an important influence), while those of The Music of Chance (1990) are drawn straight from Beckett again and Franz Kafka, with their attenuated humanity and abstract allegorical significances retained amazingly well in Philip Haas’s 1993 film version. Combining the fairy tale and American tall tale traditions, Mr. Vertigo (1994) is more fantastical and richly imagined (in its evocation of early twentieth century America) and less overtly existential but hardly as warmly human as Auster’s more recent work in which the existential and metafictional qualities foregrounded in the early work are less obvious even if no less important. As a result, the earlier games-playing (which was never just that) gives way to Auster’s and his readers’ interest in The Brooklyn Follies’ “motley bunch of messed up, floundering souls” and “stunning examples of human imperfection.”

“I was looking for a quiet place to die,” the novel begins. The speaker is fifty-nine-year-old Nathan Glass, soon after his retirement, divorce, and cancer treatment. Bankrolled by the sale of his former home in Westchester, Nathan rents an apartment in Brooklyn, where he was born but has not set foot in the past fifty-six years. “I had no idea who my neighbors were, and I didn’t care. They all worked at nine-to-five jobs, none of them had any children, and therefore the building would be relatively silent. More than anything else, that was what I craved. A silent end to my sad and ridiculous life.” This would seem a rather unpromising start to a three-hundred-page novel that deals very little with Nathan’s past, his “sad and ridiculous life,” unless something happens, which, this being an Auster novel, something does.

Nathan begins work on “The Book of Human Folly,” “a collection of random jottings, a hodgepodge of unrelated anecdotes” ranging from verbal flubs to “cruel destinies.” Then, by chance (which always looms large in Auster’s fiction) Nathan runs into his nephew Tom, whom he has not seen in seven years: a once brilliant literature student now overweight and working in a secondhand bookshop owned by a flamboyant homosexual. “So Tom went to work for Harry Brightman,” Nathan says, “little realizing that Harry Brightman did not exist.”

Nathan’s narrative suddenly swerves from Tom, “the long-suffering hero of these Brooklyn follies,” to Harry, Harry Dunkel, a man with (as his surname implies) a dark past. In Chicago, the Brooklyn-born Harry marries the youngest daughter of “the Diaper Service King of the Midwest” and opens an art gallery called Dunkel Frères (even though there is no brother, not even a business partner). The gallery thrives thanks to the work of one artist, Alec Smith, whose suicide spells disasteror would, were it not for another chance arrival, that of Gordon Dyer, whose own work is not very good but who turns out to have a special talent for imitating Smith’s style. Dyer, however, is no ordinary forger. He effectively becomes Smith’s double (as well as the previously straight Harry’s lover), to the point of “taking Smith farther than Smith himself had ever gone.”

In this way Dunkel Frères continues to thrive until Smith’s widow sees one of the forged works, thanks to the kind of chain of contingent events that Auster’s deadpan delivery makes seem not just possible but...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 3 (October 1, 2005): 5.

The Boston Globe, January 15, 2006, p. K7.

Chicago Tribune, January 22, 2006, p. 4.

The Guardian, November 12, 2005: 11.

The New York Times 155 (January 4, 2006): B2.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (January 8, 2006): 12.

The Observer, November 20, 2006, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 40 (October 10, 2005): 34-35.

Review of Contemporary Fiction 26, no. 1 (Spring, 2006): 146-147.

USA Today, February 16, 2006, p. B12.

The Washington Post, January 15, 2006, p. T7.