The true confessions of a cultural obsessive turned author.
After turning his love of SF and detective fiction into an early career as a promising but little-known novelist, Lethem (Amnesia Moon, 1995) burst into the mainstream with Motherless Brooklyn (1999), a tale that married Brooklyn childhood with detective story. Lethem has since repeatedly mined the place of his upbringing in fiction (The Fortress of Solitude) and essays (the New Yorker, Granta), like those collected here. The best thing about Lethem’s nonfiction is his willingness, in the midst of all his writing on culture (since most of these pieces are about books, films, and comics that he loves, and why) to cop to his sometimes elitist and obsessive-compulsive behavior while at the same time giving ample evidence of his knowledge. “Defending The Searchers” is a case in point, a hilarious account of Lethem’s years of relentlessly defending the film to those who thought it outdated and racist, even when he wasn’t sure he liked it himself, being so convinced of its importance in the canon. The title essay, about the roundly despised and now mostly forgotten proto-Beat author Edward Dahlberg, is less successful, perhaps because it’s less personal. This is definitely not the case for “You Don’t Know Dick” and “13, 1977, 21,” which are, respectively, a persuasively honest argument for the greatness of Philip K. Dick and an accounting of the 21 times Lethem saw Star Wars, during the summer when his family fell apart. The masterpiece here, however, is “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” a warm and richly researched history of the Brooklyn subway stop that’s a perfectly realized slice of urban mythology, with everything in it from a thumbnail history of the subway system to the cult film The Warriors.
Persistent and persuasive, like listening to that friend with the smartest take on just about any subject under the sun.