A River of Gentrification Runs Through It: Jonathan Lethem’s new fiction chronicles neighborhood tales from the ’60s to the present.
Brooklyn Crime Novel, by Jonathan Lethem, Ecco, 373 pages, $30
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“What if Brownstone Brooklyn is salted with fakes to begin with? False fronts, a Potemkin village?” For sure, the place (non-place? near-place?) where Jonathan Lethem’s thirteenth novel is set has seemed mythic in many ways in recent decades—though the mirage will shimmer, reform, or even dissolve depending on how you arrived, in fact or fancy, at a diverse locale somewhere south of the western end of Atlantic Avenue. Late aughts, my first time in the US, let alone Brooklyn, I came jet-lagged out of the subway at Hoyt-Schermerhorn and thought: Home at last! A touristic cliché: it all looks so familiar, so comforting. Later I fell asleep beneath an early twentieth-century photograph of the very Boerum Hill row house where I was staying. Half the night a voice screamed from the nearby Wyckoff Gardens projects: “I want my daddy!” It was not clear this was the voice of a child, and by morning my naivety about the area was fading: I see what has happened here.
Brooklyn Crime Novel is rangy, garrulous, and moving, and also—so it seems to this outsider—a deeply researched epic of gentrification and its discontents. Lethem’s narrator (more on this unnamed persona later) gives us the large historical sweep, from an influx of self-styled bohemian adventurers in the late 1960s, through consequent tensions of class and race, to a real-estate apotheosis forty years later—houses bought for $20,000 now fetching never-work-again sums—and beyond into a present where only the Brazen Head Wheeze, a terminal bore in a neighborhood bar, will remember all the facts and legends in between. Rapacious landlords and developers from mobster-ish mid-century, the Black tenants they dislodged to the projects, pot-smoking white couples renovating one room at a time, gunshots in the street and blood on the stoop: it’s all there, but the real energy of the novel comes from Lethem’s choice to focus on the lives of local children in the 1970s. (These characters remain anonymous: the Dean Street boys, the millionaire’s son, the spoiled kid.) The crime of the title is mostly low-level—until it’s not.
Lethem is uncannily good at conjuring the combination of mundanity and terror that makes up any childhood marked—and whose isn’t?—by territories, packs, the constant threat of violence or (maybe worse) physical and spiritual humiliation. In Brooklyn Crime Novel, the kids call it “the dance”—much of the book unfolds in the choreography of street encounters, in which everybody knows the drill, but things may still get out of hand. Parents dole out “mugging money” and instructions to hand it over without protest, though they also want their children to put up a fight sometimes, to resist becoming conspicuous easy marks. For the kids, it’s all much more complicated: “Because the dance is a puzzle and an assertion, the dance is dialectical, the dance is racialized. The dance is call-and-response: you were placed here by civil rights, in the name of your parents’ beliefs. The dance dares you to look it in the eye—the gulf between that assertion and this pavement-level reality.”
The parents, meanwhile, are in flight from reality. “The father works as a therapist but aspires to make jewelry.” The central Black character, simply known to the reader as C., enumerates the delusions of his white friends’ parents: they think their children will be “ennobled” by a Black friend, or cooler with a Black friend, and they themselves will be cooler in turn. The kids will certainly, C. reflects, be safer with a Black friend. For all their conflicted concern—trying to balance their supposed non-racism with the realities of the street—these white adults have no clue that their offspring are being trained in shoplifting, that those boys secluded upstairs are lovers not playmates, that a generation only lately hitting adolescence has negotiated a far more nuanced understanding of the racial-economic dance than they ever did, or ever will, with their fond memories of civil-rights allyship.
Brooklyn Crime Novel is structured in 124 numbered sections, some of these attaching to a particular year or historical period, others laminating different times into one, in imitation of the experience of living in a place that seems made up of many overlapping timescales (isn’t this all places?). The chapters operate like archaeological trenches of varying depth and extension, or like the clumsy excavations of a pair of teenage boys who are working on a brownstone renovation, digging through lath and plaster to discover ancient, long-hidden porn magazines masquerading as sexological treatises. All along, unknowing, you live with the remnants of past joys and disasters, past concealments too. As Lethem puts it: “Perhaps the street really is an impossible object. A figure like a tesseract or Klein bottle, something that folds upon itself.” So artfully involuted is the novel’s multiplicity of narratives and trajectories that it never feels unbalanced by its weight of historical detail—which is anyway heavily ironized in the figure of the bar-propping Wheeze with his buttonholing stream of Brooklyn lore.
Four chapters, or sections, from the end, Lethem asks: “Who’s Writing This Book?” The question has been lurking for the reader throughout, but by now has sharpened in the mind and joined with an adjacent one: Who has the right, when there are so many competing stories to tell? And what exactly have we been reading? A lightly fictionalized history? A set of very tall tales such as told by teenage boys about their street escapades? A larger treatise on race, property, and policing? Brooklyn Crime Novel concludes wryly, with the narrator telling us he (is it he?) wanted to avoid nostalgia-bound references to 1970s music: the sort of street-hassle vibe you’d fear from a TV adaptation of this novel. Instead, Lethem gives us an intimate picture of the recent past that will not stop barging into the present.
Brian Dillon’s Affinities, Suppose a Sentence, and Essayism are published by New York Review Books. He is working on Ambivalence, a book about aesthetic education; and Gone to Earth, on Kate Bush.