Try a Little Tenderness

(Jean-christian Bourcart/getty Images)
Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine
Sunday, January 15, 2006


A Novel

By Paul Auster

Henry Holt. 306 pp. $24

I don't know if they still do it, but bookstores in college towns used to keep the novels of Paul Auster behind the cash register, out of customers' reach. Apparently they were among the most frequently shoplifted books, along with those by Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, whose Beat romances extolling life outside the bounds of polite society will surely be inspiring acts of literary larceny a hundred years from now.

Hard-up, light-fingered undergrads were probably drawn to Auster's earlier novels -- works like Moon Palace , The Music of Chance and those making up his New York Trilogy -- because they contained all kinds of brooding, fate-tossed characters whose existential angst aggrandized their own. They may also have found irresistible Auster's plots, many of which hinged on fantastic coincidences that irrevocably altered his characters' lives. When you're 19 and living away from your parents for the first time, it's exciting to think that some chance encounter might usher you toward your destiny.

But any young scholar thinking about claiming the five-finger discount on The Brooklyn Follies , Auster's newest, might want to wait and see if other, more licit, discounts will eventually apply. After all, selection by Oprah Winfrey for her book club usually results in a significantly reduced price at the major chain bookstores.

What's that? Paul Auster jockeying for a spot on the midcult must-read list? Wait a second -- he writes intricately structured, darkly ironic novels of ideas , doesn't he? Don't worry. He still can; just witness Oracle Night , his 2003 meditation on literature's puzzling relationship to consciousness. Still, for whatever reason, Auster has decided that the time has come to try something much more conventional: a big-hearted, life-affirming, tenderly comic yarn. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But really, how will this piece of candy be greeted by those who have grown accustomed to the darker, stronger stuff?

With gratitude and encouragement, one hopes. In many ways, The Brooklyn Follies is a welcome sign that Auster, whose fictional universe can too often seem mechanistic and overdetermined, is finally relaxing a little. Nathan Glass, the story's 59-year-old narrator, is the rare Austerian figure who could be described as easygoing. Though his life has hardly been trouble-free -- his ex-wife hates him, his only daughter resents him, and he's just undergone treatment for lung cancer -- he's remarkably unhaunted and greets life's obstacles with good humor and equanimity. Though he tells us in his first sentence that he has moved from the suburbs back to Brooklyn, where he was born, "looking for a quiet place to die," it's not long before we realize the whole Thanatos thing is just part of his shtick. Nathan is really looking for a good place to start over.

When he encounters his nephew, Tom, working behind the counter at a local bookstore, the two reconnect instantly and become inseparable. Like his Uncle Nat, Tom is floundering: The former academic star has jettisoned his aspirations as a teacher and literary critic and is living alone in a tiny apartment, waiting for meaning to return to his life. And then it does, literally walking into his front door in the form of his 9-year-old niece, Lucy: the daughter of a troubled sister who has disappeared. But if Tom and Nathan think that Lucy's arrival will help clear up the mystery of what happened to her mother, they're mistaken. Though she's clearly intelligent, and more than a little cagey, the child is absolutely silent on that matter and all others.

In the meantime, Tom has become smitten with a neighborhood beauty -- married with kids -- whom he barely knows. A trip to New England introduces two more troubled souls: a morose innkeeper, perpetually mourning for his late wife, and his middle-aged daughter, fearful of a spinster's future. The manner in which everyone's miseries converge and nullify one another is what defines The Brooklyn Follies , ultimately, as a comedy. Suffice it to say that by the end, the partner-less are happily partnered, the long-lost are returned, and love finally flourishes where dread once thrived. All just in time for Sept. 11, 2001 -- the day Nathan ends his account. Dread has just been forestalled, of course, not vanquished.

"Never underestimate the power of books," Nathan reminds us. Taken out of context, it's a banal proverb. But juxtaposed with another passage from The Brooklyn Follies , it cuts straight to the theme at the heart of so much of Auster's work: that the stories we tell one another are more than mere entertainments. In one of Tom's many literary discussions with his uncle, he relays the anecdote of Kafka and the doll. Near the end of his life, living in Berlin with his lover, Kafka went for a walk in the park and saw a little girl crying. He asked her what the matter was, and she told him that she had lost her doll. Without missing a beat, Kafka assured the little girl that the doll wasn't lost, only traveling; Kafka knew this for a fact, he said, because the doll had written him a letter describing her journeys, which he promised to bring the girl the next day. Every day for three weeks, he brought the girl a new letter that he had spent much of the previous night composing, until she could no longer remember why she had been sad in the first place. "She has the story," Tom tells Nathan, "and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear." ยท

Jeff Turrentine is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company