Jonathan Lethem Returns to Dean Street After Twenty Years With New Characters and More Crimes

How a chorus of criticism turned into "Brooklyn Crime Novel"

Brownstones in Brooklyn
Photo by Steven Severinghaus on flickr

When you hear the title Brooklyn Crime Novel, you might automatically think of genres involving mystery — whodunnit, noir, hardboiled, detective fiction, etc. — and plots driven by investigation. You might think of specific titles such as The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Black Dahlia, The Feral Detective, Gun, With Occasional Music, and perhaps even Motherless Brooklyn. No one would fault you for imagining that Brooklyn Crime Novel exists in these universes. Maybe it does. But more likely, you’ll find that it belongs outside of these realms. The narration proves to be omniscient, prismatic, and perpetually evolving. The voice behind the novel immerses tourists and locals alike into the urban myths and overheard phone calls that pass between kids and parents, as well as the secrets that are unspoken for decades yet somehow known by all. Through a range of fictional scenes, vignettes, muggings, walks, dances, and late-night conversations, Lethem investigates the physical and cultural gentrification of Brooklyn along with the undercurrents of the racial and sexual politics that have always been there, pulsing in its streets throughout history.

Through the novel’s eclectic cast of characters — including a spoiled boy, a millionaire’s son, a mediator named C., an antiquarian kid, the board-game obsessed, a Brooklyn novelist, the Brazen Head Wheeze, hippies replaced by hipsters, movie stars, and the elusive narrator himself — we become absorbed into the past lives of a borough that has been eroded but not yet erased. 

Despite the kaleidoscope of characters within the novel, it is still Brooklyn that serves as the protagonist, and the propelling mystery at hand is: What happened to it? Returning to Dean Street after twenty years, Lethem brings with him a magnifying glass, profound retrospect, an open mind, and scintillating insight to find the true meaning of growing up — not just for the boys on the block, but for the city, for Brooklyn itself. 

Kyla Walker: How do you think about urban legends in terms of what to believe and what to disregard? And how did they influence you growing up and now as a writer?

Jonathan Lethem: The book is partly about how some things that occur are translated, often rather rapidly, into something that could be called an urban legend, but they become very charged because of the element of the real that’s hiding inside the legendary part of them. Maybe this also connects strongly to the idea of street knowledge, but also of tabloid culture… In the treatment of true things by tabloid culture, they become legendary, whether or not they’re being spoken of truthfully. There’s the emotional, mythic, and implicitly political—often quite terribly racist—energies attached to them that turn them iconographic or totemic or overcharged with resonances. And this process is definitely a part of this book. But also, what kids or teenagers say to each other and how wrong and right they are when they’re exchanging information. They’re not cynical tabloid reporters, but they also have a powerful mythic impulse that’s transforming things into the legends of the street. This was a world that I experienced intimately and participated in. So, one more layer is that this book was written not in a pretend innocence of my own involvement and complicity in creating images and ideas around New York City in the seventies and eighties. It was written instead as an act of open engagement, a confrontation with, and a curiosity about what it meant that I knew I was also a propagator of myth. 

KW: What was the catalyst that led to writing it at this moment?

Crime is fundamental in my perspective on how life exists.

JL: When I finished writing Fortress of Solitude in 2003 and then began answering questions about it in 2004, I would say and mean it that I was never going to want to write about that place again. I felt that I’d had my say, and there were aspects of what I’d done that were very satisfying, and others that might be puzzling or incomplete, but as an emotional journey, it was exhaustive and exhausting. I was done. I couldn’t imagine going back to it. People always ask writers, “Are you going to do something like this again?”

KW: Or a sequel…

JL: For so long, I would just lay that card on the table and say, “Oh, no, it’s someone else’s turn now. My utterance is complete.” I used to joke that it was the Fortress of Solitude listening tour because I would be made available in person, and I would say a certain number of things or read a little bit from the book. And then, I would start hearing this testimony coming back at me. “It was like this.” “It was like that.” Or “You got this wrong. You got this right.” Or “That’s me, that’s my brother. I know who that is, and here’s why.” “I can tell what you’re doing here.” In that sense, I was unconsciously beginning this process of conversations that I earlier described. I was already starting to research Brooklyn Crime Novel without having any idea that I would ever be writing it. Because all those voices, those post-publication Fortress of Solitude encounters on the listening tour, were the beginning of what I began to do very intentionally and with an enormous amount of desire and purpose. I acknowledged to myself in the last five years that I was going to write about Dean Street again. So, I was never off the Fortress of Solitude listening tour. It was the combination of my incredibly good luck at how that book was published and stuck around and the fact that it was adapted into a theater piece in New York City. A lot of people saw that which made them talk about it again and talk about it with me again. There’s also the fact of my own gregariousness, the fact that I’m not a shy person, and I do make contact with readers in many situations pretty readily. So, it was 20 years’ worth of conversation that led to Brooklyn Crime Novel.

And then, there was a pivot in the middle, which was the theater piece. When you make a story out of your own life and you throw it out into the world, it’s embarrassing and exalting in equal measure that anyone cares about these things that mean so much to you. It’s incredibly humbling too, but it felt like it was still in transmission for a long time, whether I attended to that or not. But when I went and saw the theater piece, it had been handed back to me in a strange way because musical theater is such a strange art form. There’s something uncanny in that form—turning stories into song, making characters and having them switch from spoken voices to singing, and then sometimes singing together in groups—it breaks into some kind of layer of emotional possibility… And it made me know how little I still understood about it all. You can write a 600-page book about a block, and you can turn out to still be only at the beginning of understanding what you feel, and why it’s so complicated for you. The musical shattered my certainties that just because I had typed for four years, I had figured everything out.

KW: That’s so interesting it was the musical that did that.

You can write a 600-page book about a block, and you can turn out to still be only at the beginning of understanding what you feel.

JL: It put me back at the starting line in a certain sense. Even then, I was still in denial that I was going to write about Dean Street again. But the funny thing about the musical was they also acted as if I was responsible for it. So, they put me on stage for a talk back to the theater audience at the opening night. Then the question came: “Will you ever write about Dean Street again?” And I started to haul out my usual, “No, no, no, I said it all. It’s done. Someone else’s turn.” Then, on stage in real time, I came up with a different answer, which I thought was a joke. I said, “Well, if I ever wrote about Dean Street again, I would do it from the point of view of a bunch of disgruntled characters who grew up on the street where someone wrote a very celebrated book and think that the novelist got it all totally wrong. And I would write a book about the people who think that Fortress of Solitude is a crock of shit.” So, there I was joking… And you can see where that joke led me.

KW: Definitely… You can feel the weight of all the different opinions and perspectives in the book. It was beautiful how it was done and came together. The metafictional aspect of it felt very Borgesian. I’m curious, how does it feel for you to read about Brooklyn by writers who you didn’t grow up with, or are part of a different generation? Does it feel like a different city you’re reading, or do you see resonances?

JL: Well, it is a different city. I’m not only 60 years old, but also, I have been living away from Brooklyn for almost 15 years now. But, even more than those two very important contexts, I am so overwhelmingly engaged with this memory palace—of what it was like in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—that I can’t see Brooklyn now with real clarity. It’s easy to be condescending about this and to say, “Oh, you think it gentrified from 2015 until now? Oh, that’s pretty funny…” But actually, of course it did. It kept going. It kept changing. And the book is an attempt to accept that I’m trapped in time. I’m a reporter from another planet at this point. If I have anything to offer, it’s that I’m a Rip Van Winkle character or an H.G. Wells’ time traveler who’s shaking his fist. 

KW: You’ve said in class before that you worked in bookstores throughout your twenties in Berkeley and San Francisco. How would you compare the bookstore culture/literary scene between San Francisco and New York after having experience in both?

JL: I did work in bookstores in New York City as a teenager. I worked in three or four before I’d even gone off to college, and I drew on that. There was a milieu of these kind of deep, arcane, cranky, irascible old guys still running bookstores that was very much like breaking into some green room where Borscht Belt comedians were still arguing about who had the better night on stage at some Catskills resort. It was like a magic carpet into that New York ethnic subculture—often Jewish or Greek—of a deeply irritable, knowledgeable but grubby subculture of secret codes and signals. It was still accessible a bit when I was a kid. It’s pretty much evaporated. But by the time I got to San Francisco and worked in bookstores, there were like four of those guys who’d moved West, and I worked for one of them. A great one: Moe Moskowitz. But this thing was moving quickly into the rearview mirror, and I accelerated that by going west, because there was less of it there to begin with.

KW: As someone who’s been a wide reader for so many years and a prolific writer, do you feel that fiction can be as transformative an experience as a real life event can?

JL: I’ve delivered so much of my life to this value system, and you used the key word. When I want someone to believe that I want them to read a book, not just that I have officially recommended it, I often use the word “experience”— meaning this part of your life when you’re reading this book is going to matter… But I do think also that prose fiction in the recent phase is under a certain pressure of skepticism and resistance that’s real. It doesn’t make any sense to ignore it. It’s a condition that seems remarkable to me that what I care about, like the coexistence of the past and the present, is still so vividly alive. People have joked, “Oh, the novel is always dead.” And the novel goes on living. Norman Mailer has this quip where someone said to him, “Is the novel dead?” And he said, “The novel will be at your funeral.” But with the present form of the novel, a lot of the new ones that work do so by injecting some degree of this resistance or skepticism into their bloodstream. Like a toxin. And then handling it. That’s what goes by the name “autofiction.” The Rachel Cusk variety and a number of other varieties. I think this is important. It’s not just to be thought of as a fashion or a phase. But this moment of this tension, put-upon resistance, or skepticism matters. And it matters partly because if you’re lining up the magic super villains of our present universe along with reactionary nostalgia, racism acknowledged and unacknowledged, the fascist longing for authoritarian clarity in a world of unclarity, then another villain in the last decade at least is narrative certainty. Stories that pretend they know everything and are totally absorbing and have every answer—those are causing enormous amounts of grief.

Storytellers are in a weird place because their gift is being openly, brazenly exploited for all kinds of monstrous purposes so storytelling that doesn’t stop and say, “Wow. Storytelling. What’s going on with this?” feels uncomfortable often now. Some people, without even completely noticing that they feel unsafe being fully absorbed in a seamless fictional space—a richly descriptive, all-encompassing fictional space. It isn’t just that readers’ attention spans are fragmented, and they happen to look at their phones and then they put the book down. Maybe also it makes them anxious to be so subsumed in a story… Maybe our stories are killing us. 

KW: Can we talk about the title? Brooklyn Crime Novel comes with a certain set of expectations when you open to the first page. How did the phrase come up and stick for you?

JL: That’s a good last question because there’s a definite story to this. So, the publishing mechanics of this book were that it was the second book of a two-book agreement. One was The Arrest, which was well defined and partly written, and the other was this gigantic intention that was very inchoate and hard to name. And there were no pages. Zero. There also wasn’t a title, but I knew it was about Brooklyn. When the contract came back to me and my agent, the contractual people had to put something in the description. There was no title so they’d written in “Brooklyn Crime Novel.” I’d said nothing about crime. I just said Brooklyn.

KW: No way.

JL: My agent flagged it. He was looking through the contract and said, “So, I know a bit about what you intend to do, and I’m not sure this description should go in the contract because you didn’t say it was going to be a crime novel.” At first, I was ticked. Who do they think I am? Just some guy who writes the same book over and over again. I’m not writing another Motherless Brooklyn. And then, it struck me as funny because at another level, the only thing every one of my books has in common is: there are crimes in them. It’s resolutely true. I grew up in a world of criminality. And I write about crime, whether I’m writing “crime novels” or not, let alone the three that can be called detective novels. Fortress of Solitude has murder in it. Lots of others have crimes that have statutes against them, crimes of the heart, and crimes of the soul. Even as whimsical a book as my romantic comedy You Don’t Love Me Yet, the plot actually hinges on a kidnapping. Albeit, of a kangaroo. Point is, I never fail to write about crime. For one second, I was indignant that they’d inked in these words, Brooklyn Crime Novel. Then, as the years passed and I was working towards this goal, the weird thing was that the insight this mistake caused me to make was that I had to accept that crime is fundamental in my perspective on how life exists. That insight became influential on the book. Suddenly I started to see everything in terms of crime.

One of the things that I realized I was annoyed about with Fortress of Solitude was that it divided the characters too much into crime: criminals, perpetrators, and victims. The truth is we were all doing crime. Even the most bullied, the most frightened, even the most put-upon worm of a kid crawling down the sidewalk was also doing vandalism and shoplifting. This insight started to dominate my thinking as I worked on this book—the sense in which every single person is this complicit participant and on both sides, they’re victim and perpetrator. But crime saturates the sense of the book and the sense of this world. And then, when it came time to give it a title, I couldn’t stop thinking about that phrase.

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