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The ‘Whiteboy Brooklyn Novelist’ Grows Up

The ‘Whiteboy Brooklyn Novelist’ Grows Up

Jonathan Lethem had come back to Brooklyn, and I wanted to know why.

One afternoon a few months ago, he took me to Dean Street, the block in Boerum Hill where he grew up in the ’70s. The area is the setting of his 2003 book (and one of my favorite novels), The Fortress of Solitude, and of his new one, Brooklyn Crime Novel.

I was raised in Brooklyn too, some 15 years after Lethem, and he remains, among my childhood friends and I, somewhat of a literary patron saint: the Brooklyn boy who did us proud by immortalizing our borough in contemporary fiction. He was given a hero’s welcome by the literary establishment after publishing Motherless Brooklyn, in 1999, and again after Fortress. But I say “somewhat” because after that, he left town. Both literally—he relocated to Maine and eventually to the West Coast—and in his literature. We old Brooklynites have a high tolerance for crimes, but we consider desertion one of the most egregious. Though he’s written six novels since Fortress, he has not set another in Brooklyn—until now.

He returned to familiar territory for a number of reasons, but here is one: Over the years, he told me, people were always asking if he’d ever write about Dean Street again, and he always said no. But one day, he blurted out something new: “The only way I would ever do a sequel to Fortress was from the point of view of a character who grew up on that street and hates the book,” he said. He imagined that guy thinking the book “got every stupid thing wrong, and blew it, and made a cartoon—a self-pitying cartoon—out of this experience.” It was just a joke at first—a joke that ended up “efflorescing into an entire book.”

Lethem and I had met up a few blocks away from his childhood home, at the bar of the posh new hotel where he was staying while in town for press events. The waitress asked if we’d like anything to drink. I imagined what she thought as she took us in. Time and California have been good to Lethem. Nearing 60, he’s white-headed and slim, with a bit of a tan, in a denim jacket and cool shoes. We each sported the requisite “interesting writer glasses” (that are really only a function of age). Both of us had been profoundly shaped by the streets that surrounded us, yet to her, we probably looked like every other tourist in that lobby—just visiting.

We had to get out of there. We decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.

Brooklyn Crime Novel is organized into six sections, the first titled “Everybody Gets Robbed.”

The book’s central subject is the crime of gentrification, as well as its consequences. After well-intentioned white hippie parents take over an “abandoned” neighborhood newly anointed “Boerum Hill,” their children pay restitution in the form of “yokings”—shakedowns in the streets by their Black and Puerto Rican peers. Many of the characters are known only by an initial. We follow C., one of the block’s Black kids, from childhood into young adulthood. Others are identified by their race or ethnicity: the Black Man, the Puerto Rican woman. Even more have nicknames, the kind of quirk-based monikers that are inside jokes made from astute observation—the spoiled boy (white), the Slipper (Black), the Screamer (white). As a growing curmudgeon myself, I was most taken by the Wheeze (white), the neighborhood history-keeper and barfly who bears witness to it all.

Even the author makes a (rather hilarious) cameo as “the novelist,” whereupon he is confronted for his own crime: writing a wildly popular book about growing up in the neighborhood. He stole the stories and personalities of his childhood friends and, worse, cracked the place wide open for assholes to take over. He turned a dying world into a digestible bite of nostalgia and sold it to the next generation of aspiring bohemians.

“It really can’t be held against him that whiteboy Brooklyn novelist became such an unbearable thing, so shortly thereafter,” the narrator says.

The Wheeze begs to differ. “You,” he says to the novelist, “gentrified gentrification.”

Brooklyn Crime Novel is less a traditional narrative than, as announced on its first page, a series of stories that are part of an inquiry. And by “stories,” I do not mean a “linked collection.” I mean stories—the way people tell them to one another. “It’s a hundred novels, and it’s no novel at all,” Lethem told me. Each one is an artifact from a lost time.

I’m proud to call myself a third-generation Brooklynite, but when I was growing up, Brooklyn was just a circumstance I’d inherited. It was not a place people flocked to; it was a place people strove to leave behind, a place on the margins. Working- and middle-class New Yorkers from the Caribbean, Italy, Ireland, Poland, the Middle East, the Deep South, and even parts of Manhattan filled the apartment buildings and projects and brownstones.

A revisionist might say that it was a melting pot where all kinds of New Yorkers resided side by side, arm in arm. But this would be a lie. When people don’t have much, they tend to care a lot about their neighborhood—it’s the one thing that belongs to them. Fiefdoms were claimed by the group that got there first. Muggings and beatdowns and even lynchings perpetrated in the name of protecting “turf” were all part of the reality of Old Brooklyn.

Living on the precipice of violence could foster hatred of others. But more often, it bred a form of respect. This was the strange paradox of Old Brooklyn: You saw that other kinds of people existed, and had communities and strength. This, more than anything, is what we have lost to gentrification. White Brooklyn today sees only itself.

When Lethem published Fortress, I had recently returned to the city after college. New Yorkers were still reeling from 9/11; a blackout that year triggered more than a few cases of PTSD. Barclays arena was a glimmer in Bruce Ratner’s eye. Most nights out in Manhattan ended with taxi drivers throwing you back on the street the second “Brooklyn” came out of your mouth.

My high-school friends and I read Fortress for our book club and were floored. The novel at once validated the existence of our past while giving a name to a guilty hum that had begun to develop around our promising adulthoods. We read it and understood: Some of us “get out,” and some of us don’t, and the reasons are often tied to crimes far bigger than what any individual could ever commit.

Fortress tells the story of a white boy named Dylan Ebdus and, less so, that of his boyhood best friend and love, Mingus Rude. Dylan is bullied and humiliated by some of the Black and Puerto Rican kids from school until Mingus—the Black son of a former soul singer—moves into a brownstone across the street. The two bond over comics, music, and graffiti. (Lethem’s brother, incidentally, is a fairly legendary figure in the NYC graffiti scene.)

They are inseparable until, of course, they are separated. Mingus winds up in and out of the criminal-justice system, while Dylan—no less criminal in many ways—runs as far away as he can. Yet the further Dylan gets from Dean Street, the more defined by the place he is.

The book became a best seller, and, for a while, there were too many profiles of Lethem to keep track of. In the years that followed, things got bigger than Jonathan Lethem—by a few Jonathans.

Lethem won a MacArthur and was living between Brooklyn and Maine. The writer Jonathan Ames, from New Jersey, was also living in Brooklyn and received a Guggenheim. Jonathan Safran Foer had not won a Guggenheim or a MacArthur but had moved to Brooklyn. Jonathan Franzen made a big deal about not living in Brooklyn, though he, too, had a Guggenheim. This is to say nothing of the other white-male luminaries who, though they were unfortunately named Jeffrey or Michael, were considered “Literary Jonathans.”

“The idea of the Brooklyn writing scene blew up around that time,” Lethem told me. The conceit, he said, was anathema to him. Lethem was a Brooklyn Boy Who Made Good, not the herald of Brooklyn’s new artistic dawn. He was “the last of a lineage, not the first of a lineage,” he told me. “I was like, Actually, I really don’t identify with this.”

And so, he took off. Went West. His next novel was about the alternative-music scene in Los Angeles, the anti-Brooklyn. But you know what they say: The culprit always returns to the scene of the crime.

BW image of a man leaning on a fence on a Brooklyn street
Jonathan Lethem on a Brooklyn street (Photograph by Philip Montgomery for The Atlantic)

As we walked around and I interviewed him about the new book, Lethem kept talking about walking around and being interviewed about the old book. He remembered with a shudder one particular profile that ran in The New York Times in 2003 that he found “a little patronizing.” He told me he met the reporter on Smith Street and she was like, “‘It’s really funny to imagine, like, getting mugged right here. That’s just funny, you know?’” To Lethem, it felt like a provocation, as though his account of Old Brooklyn was nothing more than a literary device.

In perhaps the most Brooklyn of reactions—a true “Oh yeah?”—Lethem told her, “Let’s take a little walk.” He led her down Warren Street, away from the chic new Smith Street restaurants and the white yuppies who patronized them, and toward the Gowanus Houses, a massive public-housing complex nearby. There, little had changed from the old days: The predominantly Black and Puerto Rican residents were still there, working, living, striving, hustling—utterly unaffected by the “revitalization” happening a mere street away.

Lethem needed that reporter to know that this still world existed.

He needed me to know things too.

On our walk, he pointed out the buildings where the real-life inspirations for his characters had lived. Later, he emailed me an adorable childhood photo of him at a Dean Street birthday party for Lynn Nottage, his good friend from the block to whom Brooklyn Crime Novel is dedicated. Nottage, now a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright whose work tends to center working-class Black people, is pictured in a blue party dress, grinning ear to ear. Lethem, along with one of the other boys, is wearing a tiny sport coat and tie. If taken today, one could imagine the photo being used as promotional material for a school that “values diversity.” He wanted me to see that it was just how he grew up.

To a large extent, I understood why Lethem seemed so hung up on conveying his authenticity. Brooklyn is less diverse and much more segregated than it was in the ’70s or even in the early aughts. Saying you’re from here doesn’t conjure visions of the integrated stickball games and birthday parties that Lethem recalls with such fondness. These aren’t just rarities now—they’re impossible for most people to even imagine. I’d never doubted him, having grown up much the same way. Perhaps that’s all the more reason he wanted to provide me with the evidence.

I’ve thought often about that waitress in the hotel lobby: No one can see your childhood, the things you were told to value, the people you loved. They see a Gen X white guy with cool glasses. But unlike the Times reporter, Lethem cannot take us, the American public, on a collective walk through the old neighborhood. It doesn’t exist anymore. The only way he can show us how it was—who he is, in turn—is to write it. And, in this case, to rewrite it.

In that same irksome profile, Lethem pointed out the many landmarks held over from his youth. “Just as this place is trapped by the amber of the past,” he said, “I’m trapped by my memory of it.”

“It isn’t the novelist’s fault that he glazed it all in the amber of his self pity, is it?” the narrator of Brooklyn Crime Novel muses over the novelist’s big hit. “Maybe, maybe not.”

But I can’t help but feel that Lethem does feel that he’s at fault. The Brooklyn captured in Fortress could seem, to a certain kind of reader, like one of reasonable white fear and fetishized Black friendships. Some critics pointed that out at the time: The Black characters, John Homans wrote in his review in New York magazine, “tend to be sentimentalized,” and grow up to “follow the stereotypical career trajectories of poor young black men from Brooklyn.”

Part of the trouble, Lethem told me, was a limitation of the form. Lethem has always been inspired by genre writing, especially detective fiction. He reminds me a bit of Quentin Tarantino—both have lifted techniques from genre to advance their own storytelling, and both are unafraid to touch the third rail of race (though, thankfully, Lethem doesn’t feel the need to throw around the N-word). Fortress is deeply generic, Lethem told me—“the classical bildungsroman.” That was the vehicle that made the storytelling possible, but it also saddled the novel with a set of limitations—namely, the centering of the white boy Dylan’s experience.

“I let that situation colonize the story,” Lethem told me with what sounded like regret. Reflecting on how the book ends, with Dylan reconnecting with Mingus, Lethem seemed to cringe at what he’d written: “Dylan’s darkest question that he can conceive for Mingus, after everything is learned, in the last, 11th hour in that book, is: ‘Did you ever yoke a white kid?’”

As the Wheeze says, “So, you were a bullied child. We all were. Don’t make a furshlugginer religion of it, like that writer.”

Lethem insisted to me that he didn’t write Brooklyn Crime Novel to “rebut” or correct Fortress, which he remains “very proud of.” In a follow-up email, he explained that the difference between the two books is due to the “growth in my viewpoint, and tools, and ambitions (and capacity for asking for, and luck in receiving, enormous help from others), plus all the changes in the world that made something more, something much larger, seem not only possible but perhaps even necessary.”

And yet, you can’t read Brooklyn Crime Novel without feeling that it is on a mission to clear things up. Because Fortress was a lyrical, traditionally narrative-driven story of the place that shaped him, it got swept up in something he perhaps hadn’t intended: white-male nostalgia. If Fortress is beloved by people who have only dreamed of visiting the mythical land of Kings County, Brooklyn Crime Novel feels intended for a far narrower audience: those who never left Brooklyn or maybe even Dean Street itself.

When Lethem began working on the book in earnest during the pandemic, he did not rely on his own perspective or his own limited imagination. Instead he trolled Facebook for the grown-up children of his neighborhood. He spoke with “dozens of kids who I grew up with—you know, Black, white, Puerto Rican, Dominican, the hippie kids, everyone.” In the depths of lockdown, he had long conversations over Zoom about what they remembered from their childhood.

But first, he asked everyone to fill out a questionnaire he’d created. He shared it with me. It’s a list of questions such as these:

“Do you remember the first thing that was stolen from you?”

“Do you remember the first thing that you stole?”

He wrote the questionnaire, he told me, “partly as a joke,” but it made the resulting project possible; in a sense, he said, people’s participation “authorized” him to tell this story. He enlisted all of that “oral testimony to confirm what I recall in my blood cells, in my body, and dissociating it from the bildungsroman, coming-of-age, poor-little-white-boy stuff.” He wanted it to be “a little bit like a documentary film.” He wanted the people of the old neighborhood to be able to open this book and crawl into “the real footprint of time.”

The result, he believes, is infinitely larger than Fortress. And perhaps more true.

By stripping Brooklyn Crime Novel of all the traditional narrative structures and character names and faces and descriptors outside of race, he presents a story of gentrification without sentimentality. It neither advocates for nor exonerates anyone. “The victims, the perpetrators, the perpetrator-victims,” Lethem told me, “we were all children.”

I read the book at the same time as my best childhood friend, much as we had read Fortress together 20 years ago. I was occasionally wildly amused by its recollections (this is perhaps the first time I have seen described, in bound manuscript, the uniquely terrifying experience that was Old Brooklyn Halloween—think raw eggs injected with Nair being hurled at your head). At other times, I was moved by its insights about all that we’ve lost: the wild abandon of kids running the streets, the vital awareness they had of one another’s lives. And it has moments of beautiful humanity—especially rewarding, perhaps, for readers of Fortress, who may recognize several characters who reappear, nameless.

But my friend said it best: “Will anyone get this if they aren’t from here?”

I’m not sure, but I’m fairly certain Jonathan Lethem doesn’t care.

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