Review of “Brooklyn Crime Novel” by Jonathan Lethem – the demise of a community
Jonathan Lethem is most famous for his unique incorporation of different genres and his reflective contemplation of his hometown. His novel Motherless Brooklyn, which gained recognition in 1999, features a protagonist named Lionel Essrog with Tourette syndrome, adding a fast-paced neo-noir element with explosive language. The title symbolizes Essrog’s lack of family and his struggles with grief and displacement, enhanced by his obsessively creative use of language. Lethem’s popular book The Fortress of Solitude, published in 2003, is also set in Brooklyn and follows a complex coming-of-age story with intricate references to music, comics, and street art. Now, two decades later, Lethem returns to his roots with a more simplistic and straightforward writing style. “Keep your eyes free from any artistic embellishments,” an unknown narrator insists early on. “Stick to the facts – no poetic devices. Our goal is to document crimes.”
The Brooklyn Crime Novel is a fictionalized retelling of the author’s personal experiences, told through a series of fragmented vignettes that are not presented in chronological order. The narrative is filled with various voices and mannerisms, creating a complex and intricate story. Instead of focusing on forensics, the author delves into the sociological implications of what has happened to their childhood neighborhood. We are privy to the collective chaos and confusion of the streets. The crimes and wrongdoings investigated are numerous and uncertain, but all point to one culprit: Brooklyn itself. As gentrification continues to drastically change the community, it has left many feeling abandoned and robbed of their homes.
The whodunnit here is something of a rhetorical question (the obvious answer being that property is theft). The modus operandi of the generation of white liberals who moved into the blighted borough from the late 60s onwards are critically documented. The motives of the “Brownstoners” seemed positive enough: reversing the inner-city “white flight” trend, renovating condemned houses, sending their kids to local schools, dreaming of an integrated communality. Where did it all go wrong? “Is premature gentrification a crime?” the narrator wonders.
Looking back on his own coming-of-age in a world that was rapidly changing, Lethem explores the uncomfortable coexistence of the children living in this transitional area. The tense racial dynamics of the neighborhood are referred to as a “dance”, with well-meaning parents becoming part of the performance by teaching their kids to hide money in unconventional places like socks or shoes, while also keeping a small amount of change as a decoy. This “mugging money” is meant to be willingly taken by other kids from the housing projects. A collection of stories titled “The Funny Muggings” depicts the absurdity and sadness of being targeted by one’s own classmates in a seemingly friendly manner. In another incident, set in 1978, two 14-year-old boys use a hacksaw to cut their mugging money into pieces, simply to confuse their attackers.
The individuals in the packed ensemble of Brooklyn Crime Story rarely receive proper credit. Many are simply referred to as “white boys” or “no name white boys.” A Black teenager who hangs out with a group of white peers is given only a single letter as an identifier. The author humorously questions, “What does it take to earn a name around here?” suggesting “C” as a potential moniker. Otherwise, characters are identified by their traits: the Screamer, the Spoiled Boy, the Slipper, the Wheeze. The identity of the narrator becomes a playful guessing game as readers try to piece together their role within multiple storylines. Near the end of the novel, it is revealed, “As for me, I am just a character in this book – the one who happens to be writing it.”
As the stories come together, it becomes increasingly difficult to define the “crimes” or even solve them. We find ourselves in a never-ending maze of self-reference, discovering that the Wheeze, a seller of used books and a psychogeographer of bars, has been adding “mysteries from old newspapers, items found in dusty basements and storage rooms” to the narrative. In a scene set in 2019, the now grown narrator asks the Wheeze about the Funny Muggings and is told, “So you were a victim of bullying as a child. We all were. But don’t turn it into a big deal, like that writer.” The Wheeze then criticizes a “whiteboy Brooklyn novelist” whose popular book helped make the borough trendy. The Novelist, who is clearly based on Lethem himself but remains unnamed and described in third person, becomes the focus of the crime as the narrator becomes a character in search of an author. The narrator confronts the Novelist at a book reading, accusing him of “gentrifying gentrification.”
Due to his unconventional style, it’s not surprising that Lethem takes on the trendy approach of autofiction. He adds a touch of deadpan humor to this often dull and lifeless form, resulting in a truly captivating piece. By using aliases or unspecified pronouns for his characters, it could be seen as a way to protect the privacy of his old acquaintances. However, by choosing not to fictionalize them, he relinquishes his power as their “voice” and instead lets the community speak for itself. The sincerity in his writing is evident and I found myself engrossed until the very end, carried along by his genuine and bittersweet humor. This is a heartfelt tribute to Brooklyn, where the need for discretion trumps the desire for flashy style. Lethem declares, “I am one of them. I care for them too much to reveal any more.”