A retired insurance salesman returns to his native Brooklyn to die—and is instead recalled to life—in Auster’s uncharacteristically upbeat 12th novel (Oracle Night, 2003, etc.).
Nathan Glass, approaching 60 and diagnosed with lung cancer, has a lot to die for: He’s long divorced, estranged from his adult daughter, exhausted from years of toiling for Mid-Atlantic Accident and Life. Then, like an Iris Murdoch character, he becomes involved in others’ lives and experiences the gratifications of contingency. Nathan’s nephew Tom Wood has forsaken a promising academic career, gone to seed and settled for an unrewarding job at Brightman’s Attic, a used bookstore run by “born prankster” Harry Dunkel (aka Brightman), a gay art and manuscript forger who, during impassioned bull sessions with Tom and Nathan, discloses his hopeful vision of an imaginary utopian “Hotel Existence” (which echoes Tom’s abandoned thesis on “Imaginary Edens” in classic American literature). The plot keeps thickening with the arrival of Nathan’s nine-year-old great-niece Lucy, daughter of Aurora (“Rory”), Tom’s promiscuous, drug-addled, vagrant sister. A trip to Vermont brings serendipitous accidents, ends at a country inn that’s the incarnation of Harry’s idealized fantasy and gives Tom a second chance at fulfillment. But “accident and life” break in, returning the principal characters to Brooklyn to rearrange their lives and relationships—a pattern, re-echoed at the conclusion, in which Nathan survives and looks to the future, on the verge of an ominously significant Date in Recent History. The novel is energized throughout by fancy symbolic footwork, and intermittently by Nathan’s habit of recording “the slapstick moments of everyday life” in a loose gathering of jottings he calls The Book of Human Folly. But it’s hard to be ironic and warm and fuzzy simultaneously, and the American novelist who most closely resembles England’s Ian McEwan really shouldn’t try to be Anne Tyler (or, God help him, Nicholas Sparks).
An egregious misstep in an otherwise estimable career.