Brooklyn Crime Novel
By Jonathan Lethem
Ecco; hardcover, 384 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, October 3rd
Jonathan Lethem is the bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Arrest, The Feral Detective, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He currently teaches creative writing at Pomona College in California.
Brooklyn Crime Novel is Lethem's new novel, a tour de force in which he delivers engaging story that lets him revisit what he terms "the mystery of childhood on Dean Street. This is a tale about community, crime, and gentrification that traces over fifty years of life in a Brooklyn neighborhood.
Set in the 1970s, there is a daily ritual known as the dance that goes down. Money is exchanged, belongings surrendered, power asserted, and the promise of violence lies everywhere, as if it were a currency itself. The street is a stage in shadow for these children, who are Black, brown, and white. In the wings, the other players are hiding - parents, cops, renovators, landlords, those who write the headlines, the histories, and the law; and those who award this neighborhood its name.
The rules can appear obvious at first, but in memory's prism, criminals and victims seem the trade places. The voices of the past can seem to rise in harmony, but then battle with one another. A street might crack open and reveal what lies behind its shining facade. Those who lived through it are not allowed to forget.
More than twenty years on from the publication of Fortress of Solitude, which was also set on Dean Street, Lethem knew there was more that could be explored.
In the press materials, Lethem says: "In my thirties I conceived a gigantic novel, grounded in the situation of my childhood in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood once loosely known as 'North Gowanus,' now known as 'Boerum Hill.' (I was born in 1964, the same year the word 'gentrification' was coined.) It took a few years even to find the courage, and gather the needed tools, to attempt that novel. I spent four years writing The Fortress of Solitude, and when it was finally published, twenty years ago, I persuaded myself I'd exhausted the subject. I imagined I might never feel the need to write about these subjects again. Yet somewhere in the intervening decades I had the vertiginous realization that I had more to understand. The world changed, and I changed. I became involved in conversations (partly because of my book) that both deepened and shifted my perspective. After once again, taking time to find the courage and gather the tools I'd need, I made another attempt. The result is Brooklyn Crime Novel."
Lethem's editor, Ecco's VP/Publisher Helen Atsma, says: "Brooklyn Crime Novel is kaleidoscopic, a novel that asks the readers to stay with it as it moves to and fro through the lives of many characters (mostly children), and their many stories, through many decades - as it's one of the most structurally brilliant books I've ever edited. Soon the web of narratives come together. Two literal crimes, perpetuated by children, are at its heart. But the larger crime it explores is gentrification, the way families are pushed out of Dean Street, out of that part of Brooklyn, out of the city. Who did the pushing, and why, and how did they justify it? These are things most of us who live in New York still grapple with today. And as such I think this is an absolutely relevant and powerful novel for our times."
In this excerpt from a section titled "Quarters, Part 1 (1978), Lethem writes: "A first story. The start of our inquiry.
Two white boys, in a second-floor apartment above a storefront on Court Street, between Schermerhorn and Livingston streets.
The boys, both fourteen, gleefully labor at something captured in the teeth of a small, table-mounted vise. They labor at this thing with a hacksaw. The tool, the vise, the whole tabletop workshop, belongs to the divorced father of one of the boys, a man who lives alone in this apartment except during those days when his son visits. The father works as a therapist but aspires to make jewelry. Hence the vise, the hacksaw. The father is absent this morning.
THE STOREFRONT BELOW the apartment features an Italian restaurant called The Queen. A small dining room with red plush curtains, eight or ten tables crowded together. This place has a reputation among some as a throwback, a place for 'fine dining' of a sort cherished only by probable mobsters, or by nostalgists for a version of Brooklyn that is already, by this point, quaint. Though hardly vanished.
Mobsters may also be nostalgists. Probably so, in many cases.
The restaurant's proprietors own the building. It's to them the father pays his rent. The Queen also has a twin, The Queen Pizzeria. A thriving slice joint, two addresses away. Wedged between the two, the tablecloth Queen and the pizza-counter Queen, is a mid-sized pornographic movie theater. The proprietors of the pornographic move theater pay rent to the owners of the storefronts on either side of it, the pizzeria and the tablecloth restaurant. Two of these businesses, the porn movies, the slice joint, are required to keep the third - the tablecloth restaurant - afloat.
A slice of pizza costs fifty cents.
A subway token costs fifty cents.
Hmmm. Is this some golden law of affiliation? The city an oblique, untranslatable system? Or might the sole religion here be the price of things?
Let's return to the boys. What's the thing in the vise?
The vise holds a coin. A U.S. twenty-five cent piece, a Washington Quarter dated 1968, from the Denver mint. The therapist-jeweler's son wields the hacksaw. He runs it diligently in its groove, until the quarter is cut in half. The boys grin, sharing a nerve-wired, chortling delight. The vise is loosened, just long enough to turn the half-quarter in its grip, then tightened again. The hacksaw is applied anew. The slim blade rips through, halving the half-coin. The other boy seizes up the result for scrutiny. All that's left is Washington's proud forehead and nose and the letters LIB. The boys have made a quarter-quarter.
The two fresh quarter-quarters are moved to the table, where we see them now added to the results of this afternoon's industry: a pile of ruined coins. Nearly all twenty-five cent pieces, some halved, some quartered. A couple of nickels, too, have been sawn in half. Dimes? Too small. Pennies, not worth the trouble. The room is sharp with the scent of hot metal, of microscopic shreds of coin.
They are doing this superbly pointless thing off the back end of a sleepover. It's ten in the morning. The two boys are caught like flies in the web of the summer between eighth and ninth grades, the shift to high school, a great confusion of dispersal from these particular streets into the city at large.
Everything will be nothing like it was ever again.
They scoop the ruined coins into their palms, and pour them into their pants pockets, until the pockets bulge. The energy between the boys is high and delighted. Yet this is a delight in something craven. They're sly with self-regard. Sure, they're vandals - this is established fact. They've been known to write graffiti on the city's surfaces. On trains, when they're courageous. More often brick walls, metal doors, commercial vehicles. They've egged the Court Street bus at night, from the windows of this same apartment (divorced dad being not much for tallying his egg supply). What are they hoping to prove by destroying the coins?
The boys move through the apartment door, which is triple locked, including by a bar lock that braces at an angle to the floor, and down the back stairwell, heading for the street.
CHAPTER 17 of the U.S. Legal Code covers 'Mutilation, diminution, and falsification of coins. 332. Debasement of coins; alteration of official scales, or embezzlement of metals.'
The boys are committing a crime, then.
Are they likely to be arrested for it?
Not too likely.
In the world of these white boys, television cops are more present than the real thing. Dragnet, Adam-12, Kojak, cornpone fucking McCloud.
No television cops are going to screech up in a black-and-white and bust them for mutilation of currency.
The boys cross Atlantic, along Court Street, in the direction of the Italian neighborhood, their old school, the projects, Cobble Hill Park. All we know for certain is that though several dollars' worth of quarters jangle between their two loaded pockets, these may no longer be offered for purchase of a subway token or a slice of pizza. They ruined their money! What gives?"