By Paul Auster (Henry Holt & Co., 320 pages, $24)
When Paul Auster's 12th novel, The Brooklyn Follies, begins with the sentence "I was looking for a quiet place to die," it's easy to see why he's popular: If nothing else, the man can plot.
The narrator, Nathan Glass, begins his retirement by moving to Brooklyn and writing his life's mishaps into a collection, The Book of Follies. While exploring the new neighborhood, he bumps into his long-lost nephew, a failed academic working at a used bookstore. The series of happenstance events that come next—a little girl shows up on a doorstep, a trip to Vermont, a forgery scheme—are doubtless a substitute for Glass' book-in-progress, which egregiously vanishes until the end. Auster's ability to weave a page-turning yarn (and a tangled one, at that) is on high display; even the minor characters' frequently meaningless side stories are thoroughly entertaining.
Sadly, Auster's love for story trumps his love for characters, and many are either caricatures (the sassy Hispanic waitress, the dope-smoking Jamaican drag queen, the former addict-turned-religious freak) or stiff, predictable figures that fit too neatly into the novel's overall plot. And while Follies zips along when Glass narrates, it occasionally sputters when anyone speaks. Fast. "You destroyed my life, Harry. Now it's my turn to destroy yours" is dialogue that should not exist. Expecting readers not to raise their eyebrows and/or crack up at lines like that is just plain wrong. Glass' self-conscious "I'm telling a story!" narrative style is keen to reveal symbolism and foreshadowing, but occasionally it points out the plot's turns with all the artistry and subtlety of an oversized novelty foam finger. Still, the damn plot itself makes the book hard to put down.
Auster is appearing in Portland with his wife, Siri Hustvedt, whose recent book of essays on writing, A Plea for Eros, has been called sensual and emotionally resonant. Yes, it's true that paying to see a married couple converse on stage sounds as appealing as giving yourself a Brazilian with a chainsaw. But if in the course of the evening Hustvedt asks her husband why he doesn't seem to care to enhance his own novel with sensuality and emotion, then that would be one smooth set of privates well worth having.
Paul Auster in Conversation with Siri Hustvedt, Portland Arts & Lectures series at First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave., 227-2583. Tuesday, Jan. 24. 7:30 pm. $5-$12.