Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies, unlike many of Paul Auster's books, is a warm and upbeat story of a 59 year old man - a cancer survivor -who believes his life is essentially over. Nathan Glass, divorced and estranged from his daughter, comes to Brooklyn to end his days. There he discovers his nephew, Tom, working in a rare bookstore. Since the death of Nathan's sister, he has lost contact with the intellectual Tom. When he rediscovers him, Tom has dropped out of his PhD program, has scarcely any money and even less ambition. Like that of his uncle, his life is at a crossroad.

One wonders if Nathan is a side of the author himself. He is a cynic and a bit of a curmudgeon. Yet we sense his vulnerability when we glimpse him dining in the same restaurant day after day, energized by the attention of his favorite waitress.

The plot takes a mysterious turn when Tom's nine-year-old niece, Lucy,shows up.  Her mother - Tom's sister - ran away from home when she was a teenager and has led a sordid life. Lucy's appearance, and her refusal to discuss with Tom and Nathan the location of her mother, Aurora, sounds an alarm for the two men. Nathan determines to find Aurora and bring her safely back. He also decides to find a "proper" temporary home for the precocious Lucy. Along the way, he discovers a unique collection of unforgettable characters.

In a sense, the novel follows a quest motif in which our existential hero discovers genuine meaning in his own life. 

Most lives vanish, Nathan muses. A person dies, and little by little all traces of that life disappear.  An inventor survives in his inventions, an architect survives in his buildings, but most people leave behind no monuments or lasting achievements: a shelf of photograph albums, a fifth-grade report card, a bowling trophy, an ashtray filched from a Florida hotel room on the final morning of some dimly remembered vacation. (p. 303)

Ultimately, as Nathan contemplates how to immortalize these everyday people we, the readers, feel his sense of joy and renewed purpose. His second brush with death underscores life's uncertainty. As the book concludes, we see Nathan emerging from the hospital, greeting the 8 a.m. sunshine on the morning of September 11, 2001. We know that in forty-six minutes the first plane will crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Life, as we know it, will never be the same.

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