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A sublime soap opera, with Brooklyn the stage

The Brooklyn Follies
By Paul Auster
Henry Holt,
306 pp., $24

If you haven't read Paul Auster's fiction before, his newest novel, ''The Brooklyn Follies," is a great place to begin. Here in the States, Auster is regarded as one of the most important novelists working today. He is a popular writer and is a favorite with the critics. In France, his reputation is even greater. He is considered perhaps the most important American writer of our time.

The French love Auster the way they loved Edgar Allan Poe, jazzman Sidney Bechet, and Jerry Lewis. Reading ''The Brooklyn Follies" will permit you to see what the French find so captivating about Auster's mixture of realism, allegory, and old-fashioned yarn spinning. It doesn't shed much light on the Jerry Lewis question.

''The Brooklyn Follies" is at once a portrait of America at a moment in our recent history and a chronicle of a family coming together after a diaspora. The narrator is Nathan Glass, a newly divorced 60-year-old who has survived lung cancer but has no way of knowing how long his remission will last. He is lonely and directionless when he returns to his native Brooklyn. Nathan tells us, ''The distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book belongs to my nephew," but Nathan is the hero, and a refreshing one. He comes complete with mixed motives, misfiring schemes, and a funny way of talking, as if he just stepped out of a tough-guy movie from the 1950s. Nathan is an ordinary person, yet he becomes mysteriously powerful -- almost a force of nature, like Mr. Brooklyn, or Father Brooklyn.

The novel takes place in the year 2000. George W. Bush becomes president after the balloting fiasco in Florida and Washington. New York stands on the brink of the cataclysm of Sept. 11, 2001. ''The Brooklyn Follies" paints ordinary folk onto the canvas of this history. Who were we five years ago? What could we do then, and what can we do now, to save ourselves and our land?

Nathan is deeply enthralled by what he finds upon his return to Brooklyn -- the mixture of languages and cultures, of high life and street life, of the young and the old. He remains isolated, the highlight of his days being a flirtation with a beautiful waitress in a diner. Then he runs into his favorite nephew, Tom, an idealistic 30-year-old who has lost his way. Tom was a wunderkind of the literary variety, on his way to a life of intellectual achievement until something happened to him during his graduate school years. He mother, Nathan's sister, died unexpectedly. His sister, Aurora, had a series of misadventures and then disappeared, together with her daughter. Tom stopped work on his dissertation, dropped out, and ended up living in Brooklyn, driving a cab, then working in a rare book store. This would not necessarily be a bad outcome except that Tom is as depressed and lonely as Uncle Nathan.

The novel moves into high gear when Aurora's daughter, Lucy, appears at the door of Tom's apartment. Her mother became a porn actress, a drug addict, went into rehab, then was ''saved" by David, a fundamentalist Christian, whom she married. David became domineering and abusive, locking up Aurora to control her. Aurora has managed to get her daughter on a bus with Tom's address in her pocket. But when Lucy shows up, she won't tell Tom or Nathan anything about her mother or stepfather, such as where they are, or why she has come to Brooklyn.

Lucy is a daughter of sin and struggle, like Pearl in ''The Scarlet Letter." This is perhaps not coincidental. Auster highlights the work of three American authors in ''The Brooklyn Follies." The owner of the bookstore where Tom works is trying to forge a manuscript of ''The Scarlet Letter." Tom was writing his dissertation on Poe and Thoreau until he fell off the ship of literary criticism into the deeper waters of philosophy and depression. Auster suggests that our problems, at the dawn of the 21st century, are not new. Thoreau had to retreat from an America driven by materialism and commerce. Poe created dream worlds in order to get away from a country on the verge of civil war. Hawthorne wrote about fundamentalism and its perverse effects on society. Nathan, it turns out, is writing his own book, a compendium of human folly, which he describes this way: ''I was compiling what amounted to a collection of random jottings, a hodgepodge of unrelated anecdotes that I would throw into a cardboard box each time another story was finished."

It is ironic that Auster's novel is called ''The Brooklyn Follies," since Brooklyn is the bastion of sanity in an America gone mad. Lucy, secretive and violent, reveals the damage wrought by the rest of the country on a Brooklyn soul. In fact, Nathan's entire extended family has suffered the loss of their Brooklyn birthrights. Nathan, Tom, Lucy, and then Aurora, who is the last to join her uncle, are all rejuvenated by their return to Brooklyn's crowded streets.

Auster has written a sublime soap opera about the ways in which people abandon and save one another. He captures a historical moment, our twisted America, and he offers a message of hope. Love will save us. We will save each other. Auster employs tough-guy talk and funny, believable stories of folly in his search for wisdom and goodness.

Perhaps the French revere Auster because his sturdy work can be translated without losing its meaning. We have the good fortune to enjoy Paul Auster in the original.

Paul Kafka-Gibbons's work may be found at kafka-gibbons.net.

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