Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster








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Nathan Glass, the narrator of Paul Auster’s new novel, The Brooklyn Follies, is Everyman. He’s done ordinary things in an ordinary life, and says he has moved back to Brooklyn to die. Instead, Nathan starts over, leaving behind the suburbs, an ex-wife who hates him, a daughter who resents him, and becomes a mentor for his nephew Tom. Immersed in a new network of relationships, Nathan thrives, and each character comes away better for having known him. Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “PURGATORY,” pp. 24-32:


No one grows up thinking his destiny is to become a taxi driver, but in Tom’s case the job had served as a particularly grueling form of penance, a way of mourning the collapse of his most cherished ambitions. It wasn’t that he had ever wanted a great deal from life, but the little he had wanted turned out to have been beyond his grasp: to finish his doctorate, to find a place in some university English department, and then spend the next forty or fifty years teaching and writing about books. That was all he had ever aspired to, with a wife thrown into the bargain, maybe, and a kid or two to go along with her. It had never felt like too much to ask for, but after three years of strug­gling to write his dissertation, Tom finally understood that he didn’t have it in him to finish. Or, if he did have it in him, he couldn’t persuade himself to believe in the value of doing it anymore. So he left Ann Arbor and returned to New York, a twenty-eight-year-old has-been without a clue as to where he was headed or what turn his life was about to take.


At first, the taxi was no more than a temporary solution, a stopgap measure to pay the rent while he looked for something else. He searched for several weeks, but all the teaching jobs in private schools were filled just then, and once he settled into the grind of his twelve-hour daily shifts, he found himself less and less motivated to hunt for other work. The temporary began to feel like something permanent, and although a part of Tom knew that he was letting himself go to hell, another part of him thought that perhaps this job would do him some good, that if he paid attention to what he was doing and why he was doing it, the cab would teach him lessons that couldn’t be learned any­where else.


It wasn’t always clear to him what those lessons were, but as he prowled the avenues in his rattling yellow Dodge from five in the afternoon to five in the morning six days a week, there was no question that he learned them well. The disadvantages to the work were so obvious, so omnipresent, so crushing, that unless you found a way to ignore them, you were doomed to a life of bitterness and unending complaint. The long hours, the low pay, the physical dangers, the lack of exercise—those were the bedrock givens, and you could no more think of changing them than you could think of changing the weather. How many times had he heard his mother speak those words to him when he was a boy? “You can’t change the weather, Tom,” June would say, meaning that some things simply were what they were, and we had no choice but to accept them. Tom understood the princi­ple, but that had never stopped him from cursing the snow-storms and cold winds that blew against his small, shivering body. Now the snow was falling again. His life had been turned into one long battle against the elements, and if there was ever a time to start grumbling about the weather, this was it. But Tom didn’t grumble. And Tom didn’t feel sorry for himself. He had found a method to atone for his stupidity, and if he could sur­vive the experience without completely losing heart, then per­haps there was some hope for him after all. By sticking with the cab, he wasn’t trying to make the best of a bad situation. He was looking for a way to make things happen, and until he un­derstood what those things were, he wouldn’t have the right to release himself from his bondage.


He lived in a studio apartment on the corner of Eighth Av­enue and Third Street, a long-term sublet that had been passed on to him by the friend of a friend who had left New York and taken a job in another city—Pittsburgh or Plattsburgh, Tom could never remember which. It was a dingy one-closet cell with a metal shower in the bathroom, a pair of windows that looked out on a brick wall, and a pint-sized kitchenette that featured a bar refrigerator and a two-burner gas stove. One bookcase, one chair, one table, and one mattress on the floor. It was the small­est apartment he had ever lived in, but with the rent fixed at four hundred and twenty-seven dollars a month, Tom felt lucky to have it. For the first year after he moved in, he didn’t spend much time there in any case. He tended to be out and about, looking up old friends from high school and college who had landed in New York, meeting new people through the old peo­ple, spending his money in bars, dating women when the oppor­tunities arose, and generally trying to put together a life for himself—or something that resembled a life. More often than not, these attempts at sociability ended in painful silence. His old friends, who remembered him as a brilliant student and wickedly funny conversationalist, were appalled by what had happened to him. Tom had slipped from the ranks of the anointed, and his downfall seemed to shake their confidence in themselves, to open the door onto a new pessimism about their own prospects in life. It didn’t help matters that Tom had gained weight, that his former plumpness now verged on an embarrass­ing rotundity, but even more disturbing was the fact that he didn’t seem to have any plans, that he never spoke about how he was going to undo the damage he’d done to himself and get back on his feet. Whenever he mentioned his new job, he described it in odd, almost religious terms, speculating on such questions as spiritual strength and the importance of finding one’s path through patience and humility, and this confused them and made them fidget in their chairs. Tom’s intelligence had not been dulled by the job, but no one wanted to hear what he had to say anymore, least of all the women he talked to, who expected young men to be full of brave ideas and clever schemes about how they were going to conquer the world. Tom put them off with his doubts and soul-searchings, his obscure disquisitions on the nature of reality, his hesitant manner. It was bad enough that he drove a taxi for a living, but a philosophical taxi driver who dressed in army-navy clothes and carried a paunch around his middle was a bit too much to ask. He was a pleasant guy, of course, and no one actively disliked him, but he wasn’t a legiti­mate candidate—not for marriage, not even for a crazy fling.


He began keeping more and more to himself. Another year went by, and so thorough was Tom’s isolation by then that he wound up spending his thirtieth birthday alone. The truth was that he had forgotten all about it, and because no one called to congratulate him or wish him well, it wasn’t until two o’clock the next morning that he finally remembered. He was somewhere out in Queens then, having just dropped off a pair of drunken busi­nessmen at a strip club called the Garden of Earthly Delights, and to celebrate the beginning of the fourth decade of his exis­tence, he drove over to the Metropolitan Diner on Northern Boulevard, sat down at the counter, and ordered himself a choco­late milk shake, two hamburgers, and a plate of French fries.


If not for Harry Brightman, there’s no telling how long he would have remained in this purgatory. Harry’s store was lo­cated on Seventh Avenue, just a few blocks from where Tom lived, and Tom had fallen into the habit of stopping in at Bright-man’s Attic as part of his daily routine. He rarely bought any­thing, but he liked to spend the odd hour or half hour before his shift began browsing among the used books on the ground floor. Thousands of items were crammed onto the shelves down there—everything from out-of-print dictionaries to forgotten bestsellers to leatherbound sets of Shakespeare—and Tom had always felt at home in that kind of paper mausoleum, flipping through piles of discarded books and breathing in the old dusty smells. On one of his early visits, he asked Harry a question about a certain Kafka biography, and the two of them had struck up a conversation. That was the first of many little chats, and while Harry wasn’t always around when Tom came in (he spent most of his time upstairs), they talked often enough in the months that followed for Harry to have learned the name of Tom’s hometown, to have been told the subject of Tom’s aborted dissertation (Clarel—Melville’s gargantuan and unreadable epic poem), and to have digested the fact that Tom had no inter­est in making love to men. In spite of this last disappointment, it didn’t take Harry long to understand that Tom would make an ideal assistant for his rare-book-and-manuscript operation on the second floor. If he offered him the job once, he offered it a dozen times, but even though Tom continued to turn him down, Harry never gave up hope that one day he would say yes. He understood that Tom was in hibernation, wrestling blindly against a dark angel of despair, and that things would eventu­ally change for him. That much was certain, even if Tom himself didn’t know it yet. But once he did know it, all that taxi non­sense would immediately turn into yesterday’s dirty laundry.


Tom enjoyed talking to Harry because Harry was such a droll and forthright person, a man of such needling patter and extravagant contradictions that you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. To look at him, you would have thought he was just another aging New York queen. All the sur­face rigmarole was calibrated to achieve that single effect—the dyed hair and eyebrows, the silk ascots and yachting club blaz­ers, the sissified turns of speech—but once you got to know him a little, Harry turned out to be an astute and challenging fellow. There was something provocative about the way he kept coming at you, a darting, jabbing kind of intelligence that made you want to give good answers when he started reeling off those sly, overly personal questions of his. With Harry, it was never enough just to respond. There had to be some spark to what you said, some effervescent something that proved you were more than just another dullard plodding down the road of life. Since that was largely how Tom saw himself in those days, he had to work especially hard to keep up his end when talking to Harry. That work was what appealed to him most about their conversa­tions. Tom liked having to think fast, and he found it invigorat­ing to push his mind in unaccustomed directions for a change, to be forced to stay on his toes. Within three or four months of their first chat—at a time when they were barely even acquain­tances, let alone friends or associates—Tom realized that of all the people he knew in New York, there wasn’t a man or woman he talked to more openly than Harry Brightman.


And yet Tom continued to turn Harry down. For over six months he fended off the book dealer’s proposals to come work for him, and in that time he invented so many different excuses, came up with so many different reasons why Harry should look for someone else, that his reluctance became a standing joke between them. In the beginning, Tom went out of his way to de­fend the virtues of his current profession, improvising elaborate theories about the ontological value of the cabbie’s life. “It gives you a direct path into the formlessness of being,” he would say, struggling not to smile as he mocked the jargon of his academic past, “a unique entry point into the chaotic sub­structures of the universe. You drive around the city all night, and you never know where you’re going next. A customer climbs into the backseat of your cab, tells you to take him to such and such a place, and that’s where you go. Riverdale, Fort Greene, Murray Hill, Far Rockaway, the dark side of the moon. Every destination is arbitrary, every decision is governed by chance. You float, you weave, you get there as fast as you can, but you don’t really have a say in the matter. You’re a plaything of the gods, and you have no will of your own. The only reason you’re there is to serve the whims of other people.”


“And what whims,” Harry would say, injecting a malicious glint into his eye, “what naughty whims they must be. I’ll bet you’ve caught a bundle of them in that rearview mirror of yours.”


“You name it, Harry, and I’ve seen it. Masturbation, fornica­tion, intoxication in all its forms. Puke and semen, shit and piss, blood and tears. At one time or another, every human liq­uid has spilled onto the backseat of my cab.”


“And who wipes it up?”


“I do. It’s part of the job.”


“Well, just remember, young man,” Harry would say, press­ing the back of his hand against his forehead in a fake diva swoon, “when you come to work for me, you’ll discover that books don’t bleed. And they certainly don’t defecate.”


“There are good moments, too,” Tom would add, not wanting to let Harry have the last word. “Indelible moments of grace, tiny exaltations, unexpected miracles. Gliding through Times Square at three-thirty in the morning, and all the traffic is gone, and suddenly you’re alone in the center of the world, with neon raining down on you from every corner of the sky. Or pushing the speedometer up past seventy on the Belt Parkway just be­fore dawn and smelling the ocean as it pours in on you through the open window. Or traveling across the Brooklyn Bridge at the very moment a full moon rises into the arch, and that’s all you can see, the bright yellow roundness of the moon, so big that it frightens you, and you forget that you live down here on earth and imagine you’re flying, that the cab has wings and you’re ac­tually flying through space. No book can duplicate those things. I’m talking about real transcendence, Harry. Leaving your body behind you and entering the fullness and thickness of the world.”


“You don’t have to drive a cab to do that, my boy. Any old car will do.”


“No, there’s a difference. With an ordinary car, you lose the element of drudgery, and that’s fundamental to the whole expe­rience. The exhaustion, the boredom, the mind-numbing same­ness of it all. Then, out of nowhere, you suddenly feel a little burst of freedom, a moment or two of genuine, unqualified bliss. But you have to pay for it. Without the drudgery, no bliss.”


Tom had no idea why he resisted Harry in this way. He didn’t believe a tenth of the things he said to him, but each time the subject of changing jobs came up again, he would dig in his heels and start spinning his ludicrous counterarguments and self-justifications. Tom knew he would be better off working for Harry, but the thought of becoming a book dealer’s assistant was hardly a thrilling prospect, hardly what he had in mind when he dreamed of overhauling his life. It was too small a step, somehow, too puny a thing to settle for after having lost so much. So the courtship continued, and the more Tom came to despise his job, the more stubbornly he defended his own iner­tia; and the more inert he became, the more he despised him­self. The jolt of turning thirty under such bleak circumstances had an effect on him, but not enough to force him into action, and even though his meal at the counter of the Metropolitan Diner had ended with a resolution to find another job no later than one month from that night, when a month had passed he was still working for the 3-D Cab Company. Tom had always wondered what the D’s stood for, and now he thought he knew. Darkness, Disintegration, and Death. He told Harry he would take his offer under consideration, and then he did nothing, just as he had always done. If not for the stuttering, juiced-up crackhead who jammed a gun into his throat at the corner of Fourth Street and Avenue B one frigid night in January, who knows how long the standoff would have continued? But Tom fi­nally got the message, and when he went into Harry’s shop the next morning and told him he had decided to accept the job, his days as a hack were suddenly over.


“I’m thirty years old,” he told his new boss, “and forty pounds overweight. I haven’t slept with a woman in over a year, and for the past twelve mornings I’ve dreamt about traffic jams in twelve different parts of the city. I could be wrong, but I think I’m ready for a change.”


Auster captures characters and dialogue with precision. The spirit of Walt Whitman enlivens the story, and The Brooklyn Follies tells the story of Everyman in ways that will bring pleasure to many readers.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2006 issue of Executive Times


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