By Jonathan Lethem
“Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist party.” For anyone who appreciates a killer opening line, this prelude offers a glimpse of what’s to come in Brooklyn native Jonathan Lethem’s 10th novel. Best-known for his portraits of New York-based underdogs shaped by decades of familial shortcomings, Lethem has given us many captivating characters, most notably the Tourettic orphan/detective/car-service employee Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn and the pre-gentrification graffiti taggers Dylan and Mingus in The Fortress of Solitude. His latest is Rose Zimmer, the “Red Queen of Sunnyside,” around whom Dissident Gardens’ three generations of radicals orbit. After being expelled from the Party in 1955 for having an affair with a married black policeman, Rose becomes a controversial fixture in Queens, and the novel examines the shrapnel firings of her personality. Her unshakable influence on her family gets them all involved in decades of political movements: Rose’s own parlor Communism of the 30s, McCarthyism, Civil Rights, 70s communalism, and Occupy.
Her family members include her ideologically hardline ex-husband Albert; their hippie activist daughter Miriam; Miriam’s third-rate Irish folk singer husband, Tommy Gogan; their ill-fated son, Sergius; a numismatic who dreams of bringing a proletariat baseball team to Queens, Cousin Lenny; and the gay “three-hundred-pound African America neutron bomb” son of Rose’s longtime cop lover, Cicero, who becomes Rose’s surrogate son-in-law. Each of these characters are generously drawn within the non-linear narrative, and though the weight of a hyper-political family drama sounds heavy, Lethem’s characters’ wit keeps the book moving: “Rose’s Marxism quit at Marx. When Cicero’d one time popped a little Deleuze and Guattari on her ass, she balked.” (Plenty of cultural icons appear: Rothko, Kerouac, Archie Bunker—who makes a guest appearance in a fever dream—as well Tom Waits, “offering his artschool paraphrase of the lament of a hobo, larynx scarred by reflux—the exact vocal equivalent of blond dreadlocks.” Dissident Gardens catalogs the wonders of New York City past its romanticized artistic prime.)
Though you could criticize it as being too tightly packed, or (god forbid) over-ambitious, the novel reads like it was written to be the one that assures Lethem a position at the top of the list of our generation’s literary luminaries. His protagonists are flawed, idealistic, and deeply tragic in their struggle to realize their utopian dreams. The New York “grass roots” populate his stories, which requires a writer with true insider knowledge of the city’s history and landscapes. You can debate where Dissident Gardens ranks with Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, but it may be the book closest to Lethem’s heart.