Paradise regained in Brooklyn

A quirky hero gets a taste of tenderness in Paul Auster's new novel.

In his 12th novel, author Paul Auster has traded in his black crayon for one of a rosier hue. The New York tragedian hasn't hauled Tickle Me Pink or Jazzberry Jam out of his box of Crayolas, but at times The Brooklyn Follies gets downright Mauvelous.

"I was looking for a quiet place to die," Nathan Glass says in the opening line, but the former insurance agent is so busy fixing the lives of those close to him that he never quite gets around to it.

Glass - newly divorced, newly retired, and estranged from his daughter - has just moved to Brooklyn, where he plans to finish out his days as a recluse and curmudgeon.

To fill the time, he's begun to record "every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man."

Sadly, readers are treated to too few excerpts from "The Book of Human Folly," as Nathan's career in cataloguing human frailty almost immediately takes a back seat to his new life as the Mr. Fix-it of his family.

A reader's enjoyment of this tale is likely to depend on how comfortable he or she is with the notion of coincidence. If Nathan's wandering into a used bookstore two blocks from his apartment and tripping over his long-lost nephew doesn't put you off, you'll be fine.

Tom (aka Dr. Thumb) has dropped out of grad school, put on 40 pounds, lost all his friends.

When Nathan stumbles across him, he's working as an assistant to a flamboyant book dealer named Harry Brightman, who's racked up more failures than Nathan and Tom combined. "By the time a man gets to be our age, Nathan, he's little more than a series of exes.... In my case, I could probably reel off a dozen or more. Ex-husband. Ex-art dealer. Ex-navy man. Ex-window dresser. Ex-perfume salesman. Ex- Buffalonian. Ex-millionaire. Ex-Chicagoan. Ex-convict."

That last little item comes courtesy of Harry's career in art forgery. And while Nathan informs Tom that once a rascal, always a rascal, when Harry tells them about a business venture, he quickly changes his mind and decides that Harry is on the level. (Nathan's decisions tend to be immediate and arbitrary - he must have read Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" along with his beloved Italo Svevo. This can get irritating.)

Naturally, Nathan's first impression was correct: Harry's next big thing comes courtesy of his former lover and partner in crime, Gordon Dryer, who now wants Harry to sell a forged copy of "The Scarlet Letter" for him.

Nathan, Harry, and Tom dream of using the proceeds of this scam to finance The Hotel Existence, a country estate that will provide refuge for any like-minded individuals who are weary of the outside world.

(Republicans presumably would be chased off the grounds with pitchforks - Nathan and Tom enjoy debates about the coming 2000 elections and are unified in their belief that if Bush wins, the country will be taken over by reactionary right-wingers. "Do you know what happened the last time a nation listened to a bush?" asks a participant in one such debate. "Its people wandered in the desert for 40 years.")

Then Tom's niece, Lucy, shows up on his doorstep, mute and unwilling to offer any clues as to the whereabouts of her troubled mother. While Tom and Nathan feel singularly unequipped to handle parenthood (after all, Nathan's real daughter isn't speaking to him), they abruptly change their minds on a road trip to Vermont to deliver Lucy to her step-aunt.

Car trouble causes them to seek refuge at the Chowder Inn (aka The Hotel Existence) for a brief idyll. Then tragedy sends them speeding back to Brooklyn, where Nathan's fix-it skills are in high demand.

After renovating Tom's and Lucy's lives, Nathan turns his attention to locating Lucy's mom and reconciling with his daughter, Rachel. In fact, the only family member he doesn't try to enfold in a group hug is his ex-wife, "Name Deleted."

The warmth and familial tenderness is a real departure from Auster novels such as "The Book of Illusions," which started with tragedy and ended in fire, suicide, and murder.

Yet, as pleasant as it is to enjoy Auster's smooth writing and engaging characters without the death spiral, "Brooklyn Follies" never feels like a major work.

It relies too much on coincidence, and Nathan's ability to save people starts to rival that of - well, not Superman, but maybe Hawk Girl.

But if you're looking for an enjoyable love letter to Brooklyn, you could do worse than a novel that quotes Mets manager Casey Stengel: "There comes a time in every man's life, and I've had plenty of them."

Publishers apparently have mandated that every New York-based novel now contain at least one reference to the attacks on the World Trade Center (and, yes, they tend to feel that tacked on).

Auster concludes "Follies" on Sept. 11, 2001, at 8 a.m., 46 minutes before Nathan's high spirits presumably take a real beating.

But somehow, a reader gets the impression that even terrorists won't be able to crush this happy ending.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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