JACKI LYDEN, host:
Nathan Glass, a 59-year-old man, knows what he wants out of life and death.
Mr. PAUL AUSTER (Author, "The Brooklyn Follies"): (Reading) `I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning, I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain.'
LYDEN: Nathan is the reluctant, stuck-in-the-muck hero of Paul Auster's new book, "The Brooklyn Follies." Ready to disengage from life, it engages him with highbrow and low-down characters. Paul Auster has been a regular guest and contributor on our show, and we sat down for a chat in his Brooklyn brownstone. The book is an intimate frolic which he's been mulling over for a long time. How can you fail to respond when his main character, Nathan, decides to write a chronicle of human follies?
Mr. AUSTER: (Reading) `Humble as the project was, I decided to give it a grandiose, somewhat pompous title in order to delude myself into thinking that I was engaged in important work. I called it "The Book of Human Folly," and in it, I was planning to sit down in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of 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. If nothing else, I thought it might be good for a few laughs.'
LYDEN: I guess what I love about Nathan Glass is--and to me, he seems vintage Auster. He's a bit of antihero. He's exhausted, he's used up, he's bitter and he's so damn likeable. I really like him.
Mr. AUSTER: I like him, too. But he is a sourpuss, especially in the beginning. He's disgusted with everything that's happened to him so far. He's divorced after a long, bad marriage. He's at odds with his one child, his 29-year-old daughter. He's been sick; he's recovering from cancer. He's no longer working. He's completely at loose ends.
Mr. AUSTER: But little by little, Nathan gets engaged in the world again and involved with other people and he comes to life.
LYDEN: Well, it seems to me that that is true. And I had this idea of--in fairy tales, you bring wooden children to life, and Nathan Glass is brought to life in this novel through the intermediary he meets in all the characters he meets in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which, we can say--we're sitting in your home, this is Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Mr. AUSTER: It certainly is.
LYDEN: One can only look outside...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AUSTER: Right in the heart of it.
LYDEN: And he--and you do draw a lot on the denizens of the city to help.
Mr. AUSTER: Yes.
Mr. AUSTER: Well, I must say that this neighborhood in particular is a place where I've lived now for many, many years, and I've grown very fond of it. There's a wit to people in Brooklyn that I think is something I admire very much, as well. The passage that triggers off Nathan's idea to make this "Book of Human Folly" is an encounter that actually happened to Siri, my wife, one day in a place called La Bagel Delight, an absurdly named...
LYDEN: Can I stand in?
Mr. AUSTER: Yes--an absurdly named place.
LYDEN: And--OK. Then she obviously went in and made a slip of the tongue, and she said, `May I please have a cinnamon Reagan bagel?'
Mr. AUSTER: Yep, that's exactly right. And without missing a beat, the young guy behind the counter said, `Sorry, we don't have any of those. How about a pumper-Nixon?' That's quick. I mean, that's really quick.
LYDEN: And it's in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that Nathan meets the people who begin to bring him back to life. His once-promising nephew Tom has gone from the heights of academic to driving a cab, and they both fall in with a rare book dealer and convicted felon named Harry Brightman, a charming and artistic con man.
Mr. AUSTER: Harry Brightman--who used to be known as Harry Dunkel; he changed his name after he got out of prison--is a flamboyant character; there's no question about it. He is what Nathan defines as a rascal, and there is this funny exchange between Tom and Nathan early in the book on rascals. And Nathan is of the opinion that, `Well, while these people can't really be trusted and they don't necessarily make the best friends, they certainly make like entertaining.' As he says to Tom, `You know, they love life more than we do.'
LYDEN: Yeah. And Brightman has changed his name from Dunkel, and you had--when he was in the art world in Chicago, you created The World of Dunkel Fraire(ph) because he thought that sounded more European.
Mr. AUSTER: It's Dunkel. Yes, yes. Yes, he's the--yes, Dunkel Fraire. You know, is it Alsatian? Is it French? Is it German? But there is no Fraire; it's just poor Harry all alone winging it by himself.
LYDEN: I love seeing the dreams of these guys. Tom Wood, the young man who's never able to finish his dissertation, has the dream that every New Yorker has probably had at least once, which is to chuck it all and move to the country. Nathan is just sort of feeling his way through day by day, but it's Harry who's going to be the agent of their action because he cooks up a grand scheme to forge "The Scarlet Letter."
Mr. AUSTER: Yeah.
Mr. AUSTER: Or at least they have one page.
LYDEN: Yeah. Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic.
Mr. AUSTER: Because now that book--now it is true the manuscript of "The Scarlet Letter" does not exist. It was either thrown out by the printers or burned up in a fire. Nobody's exactly sure what happened. So there is a possibility that it is floating out there somewhere, just as many Melville manuscripts were, which were discovered about 10 years ago. The only page of the book that we have is the title page, which is at the Morgan Library--I saw it with my own eyes--so I think that experience triggered the impulse to write about it and integrate it into this story, 'cause Hawthorne is truly one of my favorite writers.
LYDEN: There's another agent of action--we could spend this whole interview talking about this wonderful cast of characters that you've created here. But I loved setting these three men against a nine-year-old girl who comes into their lives...
Mr. AUSTER: Yes.
LYDEN: ...and she changes everything.
Mr. AUSTER: Lucy. Lucy arrives from--no one knows where, and won't speak a word, at least for the first three days that's she with her Uncle Tom and her great-Uncle Nathan. She is the daughter of Aurora, Tom's sister, who's had a rather difficult wild life.
LYDEN: Little Lucy takes these guys literally on a ride, and there's a chapter called "Our Girl, or Coke Is It"...
Mr. AUSTER: Yes.
LYDEN: ...which is about the most marvelous use of Coca-Cola I've ever seen anyone make of it. Would you tell us what happens?
Mr. AUSTER: Well, they don't know what to do with Lucy. Tom has a half-sister, Pamela, who lives up in Burlington, Vermont, and they call her and eventually, she agrees to take the girl in for a while. So they take off for Vermont. Now Lucy doesn't want to go there. She likes her two uncles very much, and she'd preferred to stay with them.
LYDEN: Tom and Nathan.
Mr. AUSTER: Tom and Nathan. So they get in the car and she's sulking all the way up in silence. But then they stop for lunch somewhere, and Lucy very cleverly sabotages the car by pouring 20 or 30 cans of Coca-Cola into the gas tank, which is an excellent way to ruin an engine. And so they get stuck and, therefore, they stay in this little part of southern Vermont for a while, where they live in a place called the Chowder Inn. And this is where...
LYDEN: The name of that is just great.
Mr. AUSTER: ...this is where all their fates start to change, particularly Tom's.
LYDEN: Eventually, these people all come back to Brooklyn and continue to braid and unbraid through each other's lives in different ways. And I feel like Nathan becomes a really redemptive figure. I mean, in a sense, without being grandiose about it, he sort of saves everybody.
Mr. AUSTER: Yeah, that's right. And I think he begins to understand it, that he has this role in the world and he's actually pretty good at it. But he does it in his own quiet, devious way, always.
LYDEN: Well, I found it to be just a raucously, fascinating, wonderful good time. Thanks so much, and to Nathan Glass, too, for writing it.
Mr. AUSTER: Thanks a lot, Jacki.