Pity the ageing men at the centre of Paul Auster's past three novels. Terrible catastrophe of some kind afflicts them all, be it imminent death, bereavement or near-fatal illness. Toge-ther, the books present waning virility as such a crepuscular prospect that Auster has suggested repackaging them as "The Trilogy of Debilitated Men".
With the publication of his 11th novel, perhaps that should become a tetralogy. Narrated by a former life-insurance salesman with lung cancer in remission, the book opens with the following morbid line: "I was looking for a quiet place to die." Nathan Glass is pushing 60 when he heads to Brooklyn "to scope out" a place to spend his twilight years. Reeling from the "debilitating ordeals" of radiation treatment and chemotherapy, the disintegration of a dead-wood marriage and, most recently, a cruel spat with his 29-year-old daughter, Nathan searches for a hobby-horse that will transport him from his "soporific routine".
In a typically Austerian metafictional twist, he begins to write The Book of Human Folly, a "hodgepodge" of unrelated anecdotes jotted down on loose sheets of paper, backs of envelopes and scraps of junk mail, all chucked in a cardboard box. The theme? "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."
Soon after starting this, Nathan bumps into his nephew Tom Wood, whom he has not seen in seven years. Tom used to be a brilliant student and a wickedly funny conversationalist, but when Nathan meets him bumming around a used bookstore, the spark in his formerly bright eyes has disappeared. Nowadays, he's a tatty, overweight NY taxi driver, dressing up his low-grade job with effervescent but empty theories about "the ontological value of the cabbie's life". Both men are running low, and they begin to meet regularly, seeking solace in familiar human contact. Gradually, their talk recovers some of its old sheen, and there follow powerhouse discussions about the prospect of George Bush's election, as well as quicksilver disquisitions on Edgar Allan Poe, about whom Tom wrote a slick undergraduate paper.
Tom introduces his uncle to his camp friend Harry Brightman, a "pumpkin-headed rascal" who owns the used bookstore. Harry has a back-story full of scrapes and scams, and his iridescent chatter charms Nathan and soothes Tom. When Lucy, the nine-year-old daughter of Tom's tearaway sister Aurora, unexpectedly turns up alone, the two men take her in, further accelerating their recuperation.
The book builds softly to a happy conclusion, brilliantly offset by its coming to a close at 8am on 11 September 2001 - an authorial coup which tinges everything that has gone before with mesmerising melancholy. Suddenly you twig that Auster has written a displaced 9/11 novel, more subtle and profound in its lament for lost innocence than those works that have tackled the catastrophe head-on. Happiness, here, is the greatest folly, forever threatened by potential calamity.
The Brooklyn Follies is Auster at the top of his game, sublimating the graft of writing into supremely effortless prose. His words are slinky and supple; his characters sing off the page. Nathan, for example, is a delightful creation. At first you think he's a sour curmudgeon. He freely admits that "there is something nasty about me at times", and acerbically rebukes his daughter for spouting cliches and failing to come up with anything "absolutely and irreducibly her own". Meanwhile his own verbal self-awareness can occasionally miss the mark. Breasts are never just "ample", but "poignant", too; an erection is "stiff and pulsing". Nathan accumulates phrases, and this can result in tautologies: "What better way to break the monotony of solitude than to chow down with your confrere, your semblable, your long-lost Tomassino, and chew the fat as you shovelled in your grub?"
Over the course of the novel, however, Nathan's voice wins you over. His nasty streak is not malign, but rather lovable. "Give me a wily rascal over a pious sap any day of the week," he says, tempting us to agree. Like Harry Brightman, whose capering schemes have impish vigour, Nathan is a winning rogue, a honeysuckle villain who consciously enchants his reader. Despite his illness, he brims with "spunk and elan"; despite his shortcomings, he is unutterably gentle and sweet.
Indeed, sweet and gentle might be watchwords for the entire book, which has a gloriously autumnal feel. Auster's meditation on happiness and encroaching age ripens each page into mellow fruitfulness. This superb novel about human folly turns out to be tremendously wise.