Abandoning the inspired and nimble high-concept genre alchemy of his previous novels, Jonathan Lethem follows up his award-winning Tour(ette's)-de-force, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), with a big, personal, sometimes breathtaking, and sometimes disappointing book about music, class, race, authenticity, Brooklyn, and America.
Dylan Ebdus is the son of an obsessive monklike artist father and an opinionated hippie-ish mother whose ill-considered idealism plants the family, before she disappears, in a not-yet-gentrified black Brooklyn neighborhood where Dylan’s whiteness becomes his defining quality. Dylan’s best friend, Mingus Rude, has inherited the charisma and effortless cool of his drug-addicted, soul-singer father, Barrett Rude Jr., and Dylan’s existence improves as he taps into it, unaware of the cost to Mingus. When a wino gives Dylan a ring that grants the wearer the power of flight, the boys try to emulate comic-book superheroes, but their crime-fighting backfires, and the ring is used, individually and together, only a handful of times. Following them through the ’70s, we witness the birth of hip-hop culture as the boys tag the city with graffiti and black music turns into what will one day be rap.
Dylan’s entering an elite Manhattan high school is his path out of Brooklyn to the larger, white world, and he willfully abandons Mingus, who then teams with Dylan's bête noire, criminal thug Robert Woolfolk, for drug-dealing and eventual disaster. Dylan tries to escape his origins at a Vermont college, a rich-kid Eden, where he encounters the “suburban obliviousness . . . to the intricate boundaries of race and music which were my inheritance and obsession,” but he’s expelled for trailing Brooklyn, and the wrong kind of drug dealing, behind him. Dylan moves on to Berkeley, where he becomes a music writer with a black girlfriend. On a trip to LA—during which he disastrously pitches the story of the Prisonaires, a black singing group formed in jail, to DreamWorks—Dylan finds a lead to his missing mother, and is spurred to visit Mingus in jail. An on-and-off crack addict, mostly incarcerated since shooting his fallen preacher grandfather at 18, Mingus is now fully revealed as bearer of the black man’s burden. Dylan is the self-serving phoenix that rises from Mingus’s sacrifice, as popular music is constructed from the sounds of black suffering. When Dylan offers him the ring to break out, Mingus directs him to give it to Robert Woolfolk, incomprehensible, unyielding Other.
The opening section, Dylan’s childhood, is some kind of miracle: the subtleties and cruelties of growing up in the mysterious world, and the nearly instinctive dance of black and white, are perfectly captured in a sometimes dreamy lyric voice anchored by a gorgeous specificity of detail, a vivid portrait of a very particular time and place that rises to the universal. Later, though, while this unique vision of race is intelligent, nuanced, and complex, it becomes sometimes a bit schematic, with symbolism too bald, and, like Dylan’s every effort to expiate his white guilt, it makes things worse: the story, weighed down, ceases to soar. Still, though, terrifically entertaining: a fine, rich, thoughtful novel from one of our best writers.
Play that funky music, white boy.