BROOKLYN CRIME NOVEL
By Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Many of Jonathan Lethem's earlier novels have practically featured Brooklyn as a character. In Brooklyn Crime Novel, the borough is practically the main character, almost to the exclusion of all other characters. The novel could just as easily been called Brooklyn Romance Novel as Lethem explores Dean Street in short, asynchronous chapters ranging from the 1950s to the present day. Human characters to appear, playing games in the streets, getting mugged, rehabbing brownstones, and living their lives, but they remain anonymous throughout the novel and many seem interchangeable.
The short chapters, rotating cast of humans, and dipping in and out of different time periods allows Lethem to portray a vibrant, every-changing community, yet at the same time it creates a sense of timelessness. Despite the gentrification that he depicts, along with the increasing costs of living on the street, there is a sense that nothing changes. The Brooklyn if the 2010s mirrors and is a continuation of the Brooklyn of the 1960s. The same characters, even if they aren't the same individuals, populate the street. Despite a sense of community, there are also the street's mysteries, such as "the Screamer." In other cases, the anonymity of "the Spoiled Boy" allows the one character to stand in for a specific type of person.
When the novel opens, there is a false innocence to many of the people who drift in and out. Lethem introduces the reader to the kids playing with the every present Spaldeen (balls), taking care of their siblings, exploring their world. As they continue to move through Brooklyn, both on Dean Street and the adjacent streets, their world gets bigger and more threatening. Lethem explains the idea of carrying money that has the sole purpose of being surrendered to muggers, or techniques people find to avoid having their money stolen every day. Games are interrupted, or even cancelled, because people have to leave the safety of Dean Street to travel to the strange lands through foreign territory. The crime of the title is not just the petty crime of muggings, but also the more white collar crime of stealing the neighborhood for gentrification.
The short chapters provide a choppy narrative that means the plotline of the story is more an overarching direction that made up of continuous action. The lack of individual characters puts a distance between the narrative and the reader. On the other hand, Lethem often breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly and comment on the direction the novel is taking, which has the effect of both closing that distance gap by engaging the reader, but also pointing out the gap because the reader cannot ignore that Brooklyn Crime Novel is a work of fiction.
Lethem clearly has a deep love for his native borough. As he describes its streets in loving detail, as well as the traditions of its inhabitants, he also is describing a foreign culture. Many of the activities that his characters take for granted, to the extent that Lethem doesn't feel the need to explain them, are not universal. They help give Brooklyn (and Brooklyn Crime Novel) its unique character, but it also means the novel feels targeted toward Brooklyn natives, and potentially only toward Brooklyn natives of Lethem's generation.
|Purchase this book