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Oracle Night by Paul Auster


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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Two convalescing writers use each other to clear writer’s block and lead life to follow art on the pages of Paul Auster’s new novel, Oracle Night. If you’re in the mood for a literary novel that’s readable, dark and unusual, give Oracle Night a chance to capture your attention. Here’s an excerpt from pages 46-55:

Saturday nights in New York are always crowded, but that night the streets were even more packed than usual, and what with one delay and another, it took us over an hour to get home. Grace managed to flag down a cab right outside John's door, but when we climbed in and told the driver we were going to Brooklyn, he made some excuse about being low on gas and wouldn't accept the fare. I wanted to make a stink about it, but Grace took hold of my arm and gently pulled me out of the cab. Nothing materialized after that, so we walked over to Seventh Avenue, threading our way past gangs of raucous, drunken kids and half a dozen demented panhandlers. The Village was percolating with energy that night, a madhouse jangle that seemed ready to erupt into violence at any moment, and I found it exhausting to be out among those crowds, trying to keep my balance as I clung to Grace's arm. We stood at the corner of Barrow and Seventh for a good ten minutes before an empty taxi approached us, and Grace must have apologized six times for having forced me out of the other one. "I'm sorry I didn't let you put up a fight," she said. "It's my fault. The last thing you need is to be standing out in this chill, but I hate to argue with stupid people. It makes me too upset."

But Grace wasn't only upset by stupid cabdrivers that night. A few moments after we got into the second taxi, she inexplicably began to cry. Not on a large scale, not with some breathless outrush of sobs, but the tears started gathering in the corners of her eyes, and when we stopped at Clarkson for a red light, the glare of the street lamps swept into the cab, and I could see the tears glistening in the brightness, welling up in her eyes like small expanding crystals. Grace never broke down like that. Grace never cried or gave way to excessive shows of feeling, and even at her most stressful moments (during my collapse, for example, and all through the desperate early weeks of my stay in the hospital), she seemed to have an inborn talent for holding herself together, for facing up to the darkest truths. I asked her what was wrong, but she only shook her head and turned away. When I put my hand on her shoulder and asked again, she shrugged me off—which was something she had never done before. It wasn't a terribly hostile gesture, but again, it was unlike Grace to act that way, and I admit that I felt a little stung by it. Not wanting to impose myself on her or let her know I'd been hurt, I withdrew to my corner of the backseat and waited in silence as the cab inched southward along Seventh Avenue. When we came to the intersection at Varick and Canal, we were stalled in traffic for several minutes. It was a monumental jam-up: honking cars and trucks, drivers shouting obscenities at one another. New York mayhem in its purest form. In the middle of all that ruckus and confusion, Grace abruptly turned to me and apologized. "It's just that he looked so terrible tonight," she said, "so done-in. All the men I love are falling apart. It's getting to be a little hard to take."

I didn't believe her. My body was on the mend, and it seemed implausible that Grace would have been so disheartened by John's fleeting leg ailment. Something else was troubling her, some private torment she wasn't willing to share with me, but I knew that if I kept on bounding her to open up, it would only make things worse. I reached out and put my arm around her shoulder, then drew her slowly toward me. There was no resistance in her this time. I felt her muscles relax, and a moment later she was curling up beside me and leaning her head against my chest. I put my hand on her forehead and began stroking her hair with the flat of my palm. It was an old ritual of ours, the expression of some wordless intimacy that continued to define who we were together, and because I never grew tired of touching Grace, never grew tired of having my hands on some part of her body, I kept on doing it, repeating the gesture dozens of times as we made our way down West Broadway and crept toward the Brooklyn Bridge.

We didn't say anything to each other for several minutes. By the time the cab turned left on Chambers Street and started to approach the bridge, every ramp was clogged with traffic, and we could hardly advance at all. Our driver, whose name was Boris Stepanovich, muttered curses to himself in Russian, no doubt lamenting the folly of trying to cross over to Brooklyn on a Saturday night. I leaned forward and talked to him through the money slot in the scarred Plexiglas partition. Don't worry, I said, your patience will be rewarded. Oh? he said. And what means that? A big tip, I answered. As long as you get us there in one piece, you'll have your biggest tip of the night.

Grace let out a small laugh when she heard the malapropism—What means that?—and I took it as a sign that her funk was lifting. I settled back into the seat to resume stroking her head, and as we mounted the roadway of the bridge, crawling along at one mile an hour, suspended over the river with a blaze of buildings behind us and the Statue of Liberty off to our right, I started to talk to her—to talk for no other reason than to talk—in order to hold her attention and prevent her from drifting away from me again.

"I made an intriguing discovery tonight," I said.

"Something good, I hope."

"I discovered that John and I have the same passion."


"It turns out that we're both in love with the color blue. In particular, a defunct line of blue notebooks that used to be made in Portugal."

"Well, blue is a good color. Very calm, very serene. It sits well in the mind. I like it so much, I have to make a conscious effort not to use it on all the covers I design at work."

"Do colors really convey emotions?"

"Of course they do."

"And moral qualities?"

"In what way?"

"Yellow for cowardice. White for purity. Black for evil. Green for innocence."

"Green for envy."

"Yes, that too. But what does blue stand for?"

"I don't know. Hope, maybe."

"And sadness. As in. I'm feeling blue. Or, I've got the blues."

"Don't forget true blue."

"Yes, you're right. Blue for loyalty."

"But red for passion. Everyone agrees on that."

"The Big Red Machine. The red flag of socialism."

'The white flag of surrender."

"The black flag of anarchism. The Green Party."

"But red for love and hate. Red for war."

"You carry the colors when you go into battle. That's the phrase, isn't it?"

"I think so."

"Are you familiar with the term color war?"

"It doesn't ring any bells."

"It comes from my childhood. You spent your summers riding horses in Virginia, but my mother sent me to a sleep-away camp in upstate New York. Camp Pontiac, named after the Indian chief. At the end of the summer, they'd divide everyone into two teams, and for the next four or five days different groups from the two sides would compete against one another."

"Compete at what?"

"Baseball, basketball, tennis, swimming, tug-of-war—even egg-and-spoon races and singing contests. Since the camp colors were red and white, one side was called the Red Team and the other was called the White Team."

"And that's color war."

"For a sports maniac like me, it was terrific fun. Some years I was on the White Team and other years on the Red. After a while, though, a third team was formed, a kind of secret society, a brotherhood of kindred souls. I haven't thought about it in years, but it was very important to me at the time. The Blue Team."

"A secret brotherhood. It sounds like silly boys' stuff to me."

"It was. No . . . actually it wasn't. When I think about it now, I don't find it silly at all."

"You must have been different then. You never want to join anything."

"I didn't join, I was chosen. As one of the charter members, in fact. I felt very honored."

"You're already on Red and White. What's so special about Blue?"

"It started when I was fourteen. A new counselor came to the camp that year, someone a little older than the rest of the people on the staff—who were mostly nineteen- and twenty-year-old college students. Bruce . . . Bruce something . . . the last name will come to me later. Bruce had his BA and had already finished a year at Columbia Law School. A scrawny, gnomish little guy, a strict nonathlete working at a camp devoted to sports. But sharp-witted and funny, always challenging you with difficult questions. Adler. That's it. Bruce Adler. Commonly known as the Rabbi."

"And he invented the Blue Team?"

"Sort of. To be more exact, he re-created it as an exercise in nostalgia."

"I don't follow."

"A few years earlier, he'd worked as a counselor at another camp. The colors of that camp were blue and gray. When color war broke out at the end of summer, Bruce was put on the Blue Team, and when he looked around and saw who was on the team with him, he realized it was everyone he liked, everyone he most respected. The Gray Team was just the opposite—filled with whining, unpleasant people, the dregs of the camp. In Bruce's mind, the words Blue Team came to stand for something more than just a bunch of rinky-dink relay races. They represented a human ideal, a tight-knit association of tolerant and sympathetic individuals, the dream of a perfect society."

'This is getting pretty strange, Sid."

"I know. But Bruce didn't take it seriously. That was the beauty of the Blue Team. The whole thing was kind of a joke."

"I didn't know rabbis were allowed to make jokes."

"They probably aren't. But Bruce wasn't a rabbi. He was just a law student with a summer job, looking for a little entertainment. When he came to work at our camp, he told one of the other counselors about the Blue Team, and together they decided to form a new branch, to reinvent it as a secret organization."

"How did they choose you?"

"In the middle of the night. I was fast asleep in my bed, and Bruce and the other counselor shook me awake. 'Come on,' they said, 'we have something to tell you,' and then they led me and two other boys into the woods with flashlights. They had a little campfire going, and so we sat around the fire and they told us what the Blue Team was, why they had selected us as charter members, and what qualifications they were looking for—in case we wanted to recommend other candidates."

"What were they?"

"Nothing specific, really. Blue Team members didn’t conform to a single type, and each one was a distinct and independent person. But no one was allowed in who didn't have a good sense of humor—however that humor might have expressed itself. Some people crack jokes all the time; others can lift an eyebrow at the right moment and suddenly everyone in the room is rolling on the floor. A good sense of humor, then, a taste for the ironies of life, and an appreciation of the absurd. But also a certain modesty and discretion, kindness toward others, a generous heart. No blowhards or arrogant fools, no liars or thieves. A Blue Team member had to be curious, a reader of books, and aware of the fact that he couldn't bend the world to the shape of his will. An astute observer, someone capable of making fine moral distinctions, a lover of justice. A Blue Team member would give you the shirt off his back if he saw you were in need, but he would much rather slip a ten-dollar bill into your pocket when you weren't looking. Is it beginning to make sense? I can't pin it down for you and say it's one thing or another. It's all of them at once, each separate part interacting with all the others."

"What you're describing is a good person. Pure and simple.

My father's term for it is honest man. Betty Stolowitz uses the word mensch. John says not an asshole. They're all the same thing."

"Maybe. But I like Blue Team better. It implies a connection among the members, a bond of solidarity. If you're on the Blue Team, you don't have to explain your principles. They're immediately understood by how you act."

"But people don't always act the same way. They're good one minute and bad the next. They make mistakes. Good people do bad things, Sid."

"Of course they do. I'm not talking about perfection."

"Yes you are. You're talking about people who've decided they're better than other people, who feel morally superior to the rest of us common folk. I'll bet you and your friends had a secret handshake, didn't you? To set you apart from the riffraff and the dumbbells, right? To make you think you had some special knowledge no one else was smart enough to have."

"Jesus, Grace. It was just a little thing from twenty years ago. You don't have to break it down and analyze it."

"But you still believe in that junk. I can hear it in your voice."

"I don't believe in anything. Being alive—that's what I believe in. Being alive and being with you. That's all there is for me, Grace. There's nothing else, not a single thing in the whole goddamn world."

It was a dispiriting way for the conversation to end. My not-so-subtle attempt to tease her out other dark mood had worked for a while, but then I'd pushed her too far, accidentally touching on the wrong subject, and she'd turned on me with that caustic denunciation. It was entirely out of character for her to talk with such belligerence. Grace seldom got herself worked up over issues of that sort, and whenever we'd had similar discussions in the past (those floating, meandering dialogues that aren't about anything, that just dance along from one random association to the next), she'd tended to be amused by the notions I'd toss out at her, rarely taking them seriously or presenting a counterargument, content to play along and let me spout my meaningless opinions. But not that night, not on the night of the day in question, and because she was suddenly fighting back tears again, engulfed by the same unhappiness that had swept over her at the beginning of the ride, I understood that she was in genuine distress, unable to stop breeding about the nameless thing that was tormenting her. There were a dozen questions I wanted to ask, but again I held back, knowing that she wouldn't confide in me until she was good and ready to talk—assuming she ever was.

We had made it over the bridge by then and were traveling down Henry Street, a narrow thoroughfare flanked by redbrick walkups that led from Brooklyn Heights to our place in Cobble Hill, just below Atlantic Avenue. It wasn't personal, I realized. Grace's little outburst hadn't been against me so much as a reaction to what I'd said—a spark produced by an accidental collision between my comments and her own train of thought. Good people do bad things. Had Grace done something wrong? Had someone close to her done something wrong? It was impossible to know, but someone felt guilty about something, I decided, and even though my words had triggered Grace's defensive remarks, I was fairly certain they had nothing to do with me. As if to prove that point, a moment after we crossed Atlantic Avenue and headed into the final leg of the journey, Grace reached out her hand and took hold of the back of my neck, then pulled me toward her and pressed her mouth against mine, slowly pushing in her tongue for a long, provocative kiss—a full-bore osculation, as Trause had put it. "Make love to me tonight," she whispered. "The second we walk through the door, tear off my clothes and make love to me. Break me in two, Sid."

The process of writing brings Trause and Orr back to living life fully, following their illnesses. For an unusual visit to Brooklyn, and to eavesdrop on the writing life, leap into Oracle Night and see what happens.

Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Night.htm


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