Brooklyn Crime Novel: A Novel

Image of Brooklyn Crime Novel: A Novel
Release Date: 
October 3, 2023
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“This book is a long read—skimming won’t cut it. But it’s long the way a walk through Brooklyn’s neighborhoods is long, and beautiful, and sometimes very clearly ‘other.’”

Deep love can happen slowly. Across years, even decades, you gradually learn that a place, a time, a person, or a piece of yourself—even a piece that’s now gone—is the most important, the most valued, the most treasured element of your life.

That’s the way Brooklyn Crime Novel unfolds and twists itself like paper chains made from lives and their linkage, in Jonathan Lethem’s hands. In 124 brief segments, some less than a page long, some as long as five or six pages, and in jumps of time across the years 1978 to 2019, often going back, then bumping ahead, Lethem offers the nature of neighborhoods as if it were a buffet or better yet a banquet, one dish after another and all of them somehow linked by the pattern of the plates—or in this case by the names of streets and the colors of skin and ethnic backgrounds.

You won’t need a map of Brooklyn to read the book, although it might help. Even a day’s stroll there could help, because the clusters of life start and end abruptly with various streets, and an hour’s walking will take you through three or four enclaves as different as small nations. It is a city where race has always mattered, where identity begins with “people who look like you,” where safety is part of a trade that involves clustering, taking care of each other, defending your boundaries.

Right from the start of Brooklyn Crime Novel the situation matters: “Two white boys, in a second-floor apartment above a storefront on Court Street, between Schermerhorn and Livingston streets. The boys, both fourteen, gleefully labor at something captured in the teeth of a small, table-mounted vise.” And in that same segment, “Mobsters may also be nostalgists” and “A slice of pizza costs fifty cents.”

Is this a crime novel? Yes, but it’s also a love song in 124 verses. And a replay of youth. There’s no need to have lived in Brooklyn to recognize what else happens for 14-year-old boys: “The Oasis split now, into a Boy Oasis and a Girl Oasis. So maybe, for the boys, girls had been the dry run, the first skirmish with the dividing power of other.” The narrator quickly admits that he won’t probe the Girl Oasis—there isn’t room—but offers instead scraps and glances of how boys witness the girls in their midst. Romance is far away; mischief and its more deliberate version, crime, are the wriggling core of this story.

Still, every core needs an exterior, and Lethem also offers a “kid walks into an antiquarian bookstore” as an example of an exit from one neighborhood, an entry into another: “In high school, even before dropping out, he’d taken his first job in a used bookstore and lost interest in nearly anything else.” (Are we meeting Lethem in this segment? Perhaps. He’ll later hint at himself as one of the white boys from Dean Street.) With each movement out of or deeper into a neighborhood, the nameless boys in this story confront “difference” all over again—skin, sexuality, family structure—and alternately attack and protect each other and their families, often in secret. “It was no effort. They’d all been schooled by one another in silence. In the keeping of the facts of the street from their parents, who couldn’t handle them.”

What are the crimes at stake in this crime novel? It’s far from a detective tale. The unstoppable gentrification, the removal of identities from humans and neighborhoods, the way thoughtless wealth tramples affection and connection—these are the big disasters, the ones nobody seems to get put on trial for. The wealthy are the Brownstoners; the neighborhood folks are, to them, animals to be cleared away with the help of the mayor and the cops. Why do the wealthy do this? Letham answers, “They had their fear, and in their fear, they bathed, and told themselves they’d done their best.”

This book is a long read—skimming won’t cut it. But it’s long the way a walk through Brooklyn’s neighborhoods is long, and beautiful, and sometimes very clearly “other.” Or the way love, for the fortunate and hard-working, can be long: savored, labored for, wrestled with, and absolutely essential.