The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster is a joy to read. Nathan Glass, a retired insurance man, divorced, in remission from lung cancer, estranged from his daughter, leads a lonely life in Brooklyn until one day he chances upon his nephew, Tom Wood, who is equally burnt out. A promising student, he dropped out of graduate school unable to continue his dissertation on Melville and became a New York taxi driver before a gay bookstore owner persuaded him to mind the store. Nathan is surprised to find his nephew working at a bookstore, he expected Tom to become a college professor, but Tom is pleased to see him and tells him why he had dropped out of sight earlier. He had been depressed and confused after dropping out of graduate school, but now he has got over the blues.
Tom and Nathan resume their old intimacy, enjoying each other’s company, when a little girl walks into their life to make everything perfect. She poses a complication though. For little Lucy is Tom’s missing sister Aurora’s daughter. Neither he nor Nathan knows where she is — and the little girl won’t tell them. Mom has told her not to, she says. She even refuses to speak at first, but Tom and Nathan manage to find out it was Aurora who sent her to them, giving her some money and a bus ticket to travel all the way to New York from Carolina. But South or North Carolina? The little girl won’t even reveal that.
Nathan puts her up in his apartment, but he can’t look after her, Tom thinks and rings up one of his cousins in Vermont who is married and has children. She agrees to take her in. And so Tom and Nathan set out with Lucy for Vermont. But they don’t reach their destination. Lucy has other ideas. The car stalls and they have to check into a little hotel because the mechanic can’t fix it immediately. It takes more than a day to fix the car. Someone has poured Coca-Cola into the gas tank, the mechanic finally discovers. By then, Tom has met the woman who will steamroller him into a happy marriage and Nathan and Tom are only too happy to look after Lucy. She is happy,too. She never wanted to go to live with the cousin whom her mother never liked. Which was why it was she who…
Read the story and find out. It’s an adult fairy tale with a wise old knight who rescues a damsel in distress — Lucy’s mother Aurora — from an ogre — her husband — and a good fairy — the gay bookstore owner — who bequeaths a little fortune to the good guy, Tom, so he and his Honey — that’s her name — can live happily ever after. Aurora finds happiness too with another woman whose mother shacks up with Nathan.
But the synopsis doesn’t do justice to this book filled with warmth and compassion and sunny humour. If the plot seems improbable, not so the characters. They are ordinary people full of high spirits. They are not embittered by life’s disappointments, of which they had more than their share. Harry, the gay bookstore owner, exudes a pep and bounce that is astonishing considering what he has suffered — and what fate has in store for him. Yes, there is tragedy too. Nancy, whom Tom silently worshipped as the Beautiful Perfect Mother, finds real happiness after being dumped by her husband for another woman and meeting Aurora. Nancy’s mother is happy to sleep with Nathan but won’t marry him. Then there is the scene where Honey proposes marriage to Tom, not knowing Lucy and Nathan are lurking nearby. With scenes and characters, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this book.
What makes it perfect is Auster’s limpid prose. There’s not just humour but pace and poetry. Read this passage, close to the end of the story. Nathan, before meeting Tom, had started writing his autobiography, which he calls the Book of Follies, to pass the time. Here, recovering from a heart attack, lying in a hospital bed, he thinks about the future:
My idea was this: to form a company that would publish books about the forgotten ones, to rescue the stories and facts before they disappeared — and shape them into a continuous narrative, the narrative of a life.
The biographies would be commissioned by friends and relatives of the subject, and the books would be printed in limited, private editions. I imagined writing the books myself, but if demand ever became too heavy, I could always hire others: struggling poets and novelists, ex-journalists, unemployed academics, even Tom… I didn’t want my biographies to be an indulgence affordable only by the rich. For families of lesser means, I envisioned a new type of insurance policy whereby a certain negligible sum would be set aside each month or quarter to defray the expenses of (commissioning and publishing) the book . Not home insurance or life insurance — but biography insurance.
Was I crazy to dream that I could make something of this far-fetched project? I didn’t think so. What young woman wouldn’t want to read the definitive biography of her father — even if the father had been no more than a factory worker or the assistant manager of a rural bank? What mother wouldn’t want to read the life story of her policeman son who was shot down in the line of duty at age thirty-four?… I would do everything humanly possible to grant their wish. I would resurrect that person in words…
One should never underestimate the power of books.
That’s the last line from the penultimate chapter of The Brooklyn Follies.
It’s a wise, heartwarming, romantic novel.
But there’s a sting in the tail. This New York novel ends on September 11, 2001.