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The human condition

The Brooklyn Follies A Novel Paul Auster Henry Holt: 308 pp., $24

January 08, 2006|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

SINCE Paul Auster first gained prominence in the 1980s with his dazzling "The New York Trilogy," his novels have been praised for their postmodern blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality, their brooding, philosophical tone and their disorienting narrative structures, which toy with the conventions of genres from mystery to science fiction. So it's surprising to find him opening "The Brooklyn Follies" with sentences that have the psychological clarity and storytelling economy of classic, early 20th century American fiction: "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."

Within six paragraphs, we know that narrator Nathan Glass was born in Brooklyn but raised in the suburbs, that he is a former insurance salesman, that he has a touchy relationship with his adult daughter, that he's divorced after cheating on his wife, that he's in remission from lung cancer.

Highly critical of other people's failings, Nathan might well be insufferable if it weren't for the fact that he also trains his sharp, unforgiving eye on himself. Once settled in a Park Slope garden apartment in the spring of 2000, he begins work on a project he calls "The Book of Human Folly," in which he plans to record "every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed.... When I couldn't think of stories to tell about myself, I would write down things that had happened to people I knew, and when that source ran dry as well, I would take on historical events.... I thought it might be good for a few laughs."

The dark landscape of human nature is familiar Auster territory. Nathan is distracted from his project by plot developments of near-Victorian amplitude, complete with a precise accounting of each character's financial situation and position in the class structure. The catalysts are Harry Brightman, a neighborhood used-book store owner, and Nathan's nephew Tom Wood, whom he is startled to find behind the counter there. Tom, formerly a brilliant graduate student, dropped out and drove a cab for two years before Harry hired him to write a catalog of the rare books and manuscripts whose sales sustain the store. Harry, a refugee from a failed marriage, did a jail stint for selling forged paintings in his Chicago art gallery at the instigation of his male lover.

Harry's and Tom's histories set the stage for everything that follows, as Nathan gets caught up in their lives and in the lively society of "the ancient kingdom of Brooklyn, New York," whose inhabitants speak with "that unmistakable accent so ridiculed in other parts of the country, but which I find to be the most welcoming, most human of all American voices." The warmth and gusto that New York City's most populous borough sparks in Auster, a longtime Brooklyn resident, sustain this novel's appeal even when the author tries our patience with coy asides, a few stock characters (a warmhearted drag queen, an earthy widow) and some highly unlikely plot twists. These are not new devices for Auster, but they initially seem out of place in a story he has invited us to see as straightforward.

It's not. After seducing us with nearly 100 pages of conventional exposition, the author announces that all bets are off with a chapter in screenplay form titled "A Night of Eating and Drinking." It jarringly introduces a murky philosophical concept, Harry's "Hotel Existence," and closes with a cliff-hanging finale. "If all goes according to plan, we can expect a large infusion of cash in the near future," Harry declares. "And when I say big, I mean very big." The text then returns to standard novelistic form, but from this point on, Auster is less interested in verisimilitude and more willing to remind us that things are rarely what they seem. Remarking on the substantial difference between Harry's remorseful attitude when recounting past crimes to Tom and the bookseller's "unrepentant, even boasting" stance while telling the same story to him, Nathan concludes that neither presentation was necessarily false: "All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are."

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