Revisiting ‘The Brooklyn Follies’




This story is part of our “Brooklyn Classics” series, about well-known and underappreciated books set in the borough.

“I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn…” And thus begins Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, a novel about pre-9-11 Brooklyn, a time when Park Slope seemed far enough away from it all that a former life insurance salesman, Nathan Glass, could find the quiet and solitude he seeks for his twilight years. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if Glass found what he thinks he’s looking for. Instead, like any Brooklyn transplant knows, he finds a community nestled within the brownstones. It’s what Auster describes in the novel as the “[s]mall-town chat in the heart of the big city” and it eventually wins over Glass and connects him to the neighborhood characters he meets, including his nephew Tom Wood, with whom he randomly reconnects. Over the course of adventures, strange schemes, and kismet encounters, Glass abandons his plan to give up on life, and muses, “If there was anything to be learned from this brush with mortality, it was that my life, in the narrowest sense of the term, was no longer my own.” By crowning himself the patriarch of a Seventh Avenue block and the kooky residents who live there, he serves a purpose. After a late-life divorce, he builds a community, an arrangement that countless New Yorkers can relate to no matter what year they arrived. The secret about the city, as well as about life, is that it’s always been about making those neighborhood connections: finding a chosen family amongst the multitude. 

Fun fact: Paul Auster is also a transplant.

Although Paul Auster is pretty much synonymous with Brooklyn and currently resides in Park Slope, he’s actually a Jersey boy. He was born in Newark, NJ, and grew up in South Orange before arriving in NYC to attend Columbia University. After spending time in Paris and then the suburbs, he finally moved to Brooklyn in 1980. In his book, Winter Journal, he writes of the adjustment, “Why hadn’t you thought of this in 1976? you wondered … but the fact was that Brooklyn had never ever crossed your mind back then, for New York was Manhattan and Manhattan only, and the outer boroughs were as alien to you as the distant countries of Oceania or the Arctic Circle.” He’s lived in Park Slope with his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, for over 20 years.

Paul Auster co-wrote the films Smoke and Blue in the Face.

The award-winning film, Smoke was based on Auster’s opinion piece “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Storywhich was published in the New York Times in 1990. Supposedly, the director, Wayne Wang, read the article and immediately knew he wanted to make it into a movie, and so the story was expanded into a 1995 film to include many different characters over the course of a few summer days. The film became renowned as an example of a 90s independent film with an all-star cast: Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, and Ashley Judd among many others. Blue in the Face was the follow-up and consisted of ad-libbed outtakes from Smoke. Both movies influenced the ascension of Brooklyn as the brand we know of today, and the films hold up for their incredible acting and also as a kind of period piece of a bygone era when cigar stores, petty thieves, and ladies with eye patches existed in the borough. 

Most of Paul Auster’s protagonists are obsessive and neurotic writers.

Paul Auster’s work is almost meta-fiction for the way that most of the narrators speak in the same voice, many are named Paul, and most are all writers. (Nathan Glass, the protagonist in The Brooklyn Follies, is a retired insurance salesman, but is working on his first book.) Usually, Auster’s books take place in the underbelly of Brooklyn in the ’80s and ’90s and The Brooklyn Follies is generally considered more uplifting than many of his other works.

One of his novels was turned into a graphic novel.

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, his break-out work, consists of three novellas, “City of Glass”, “Ghosts” and “The Locked Room” and is now combined into one volume. In 2004, “City of Glass,” a literary detective mystery, was adapted into a graphic novel of the same name

The author’s personal life is laden with unbelievable tragedy.

Paul Auster’s family life is almost unbearable in its heaviness. His son, Daniel Auster, (with his first wife, author Lydia Davis) had a long and tragic struggle with drug addiction. As a teenager, he was one of the infamous “club kids”, and the fourth person involved in the famous “club kid murder” of Andrew Melendez by Michael Alig, on which the film Party Monster was based. Daniel Auster was allegedly passed out when the murder occurred and wasn’t charged with the crime. But later, another horrific event occurred, when, earlier this year, he shot up while watching his 10-month-old daughter, and when he regained consciousness, his child had overdosed on fentanyl and heroin, though it’s unclear how she ingested them. He was charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and endangering the welfare of a child, but before he was tried, he overdosed on a subway platform and died. 

Additionally, there is another generational trauma through Auster’s lineage. In his memoir, The Invention of Solitude, he writes about how, in 1919, his paternal grandmother killed his grandfather, which his father refused to talk about.   

Paul Auster’s books are some of the most frequently stolen from bookstores.

Auster’s New York Trilogy is one of the most frequently stolen novels from bookstores worldwide. According to NPR, a bookseller reported an incident when twenty books were taken at once, proving the book remains a status symbol of literary cult classics even decades after publication. It’s not just his classics that are beloved by rabid fans. His most recent novel, 4 3 2 1, published in 2017 had die-hard fans. Brooklyn Based’s Annaliese Griffin says she “fell hard” for the book and wrote of it, “Listen, 900-pages of the inside of one somewhat solipsistic young baby boomer’s head isn’t for everyone, but that’s a purposefully harsh reduction of the novel to highlight the narrative magic that 4 3 2 1 manages to pull off.” Whether you love Auster’s meta-fiction or detest it, to consider oneself a true Brooklynite means to, by hook or by crook, dedicate space on your bookshelf to the author.

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