A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations and the boroughs of New York.
Having scaled the literary peaks of Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and the Chronic City (2009) of Manhattan, one of America’s premier novelists sets his sights on Queens, though the title of the opening section, “Boroughphobia,” suggests that this is a place to escape—or at least for a daughter to escape from her mother. The mother is Jewish, strong-willed, contrarian Rose Zimmer, a Communist booted from the cell because of her relationship with a black policeman. (“Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black but it wasn’t. It was between cop and Commie.”) Her husband had returned to Germany as a suspected spy, leaving Rose to raise Miriam, a red-diaper baby transformed by the ’60s, a “Bolshevik of the five senses” who became irresistibly sexy, “not for her bodily self but for her appetite: she devoured the ripe fruit of the world.” The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth, yet the book, like the end of the 20th century, takes a darker turn, as hippie naïveté leads to more dangerous activism, illusions shatter, and old age takes its toll. Following “the unashamed homosexual bacchanal that had become possible in the historical margin between Stonewall and disease,” funerals would supplant parties as social gatherings. The novel’s social realism finds ’60s folk fixtures such as Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis mixing with Miriam and her eventual husband, Tommy Grogan, a musician who moves from a traditional Irish family trio to protest songs, a career eclipsed (like so many others) by the rise of Bob Dylan. But it also features Archie Bunker (if only in Rose’s mind) and a devastating record review by P.K. Tooth (from Chronic City, in tribute here to the late Paul Nelson). In “a city gone berserk,” pretty much every character struggles with identity, destiny and family.
Not Lethem’s tightest novel, but a depth of conviction underlies its narrative sprawl.