Jonathan Lethem’s newest book, Brooklyn Crime Novel, is proof positive he unequivocally loves Brooklyn. His command of place and time is ever-present in this work: he mixes fond remembrance with futuristic language told through a narrator who knows the ending but enjoys telling the tale—and teasing his audience—because it’s his to tell. Brooklyn is his city and ownership is key.
Now it’s time to slip into the proper frame of mind for experiencing Lethem’s book. Pop in your earbuds. Search your preferred streaming service for “Respiration” by the Brooklyn bred, hip-hop duo Black Star, featuring Chicago native Common. The intro is a street interview of someone describing their very illegal train car graffiti that reads, “All you see is crime in the city.” Then the melody bleeds in, followed by a sample of someone speaking Spanish saying, what translates to, “listen to it…the city breathing.” It’s alive. The beat drops and the two illustrate the struggle of growing up in a New York City borough that is as brutal as it is unforgiving, while using beautifully poetic language surrounded by a soothing bass line to describe the personality of their city that is just as much a character in the story as its citizens. How apropos.
The Dean Street Boys have to navigate the neighborhood where the fire hydrant will be forced open and sprayed at the rolled-down windows of passing cars amidst their scalding summer play; where kids frisk other kids for their pocket cash but leave the dollar that’s tucked in the sock because of the mugging street code, an interaction known as “the dance”; and where learning about the other residents and business owners who populate the area means collecting stories that may be no more than rumors, but are held to be true and become lore throughout their time occupying their brownstones or bodegas. The common thread is everyone’s understanding and acceptance of these crimes that take place. From the kids who participate in “the dance” to those who shoplift for fun—or to build their book collection in hopes to open their own neighborhood bookstore—to the oblivious people who commit the most egregious crime: the gentrification of Brooklyn.
Lethem jumps back and forth on the timeline and anchors the setting with characters who stand out despite being vaguely named like “C.,” “The Screamer,” “Wheeze,” or “The Slipper.” Everyone is stamped in place by their descriptor and the explanation of their name. But no matter when or about whom he’s speaking, the narrator plays with the reader, teasing out details and remaining unapologetically self-referential while doing so. Lethem completely unwraps the traditional crime novel, tears it to pieces and then puts it back together like song producers chopping up a bluesy track from the ‘70s only to put it back together in a new arrangement to make something new for the ‘90s.
What slowly becomes evident about the characters in this story is that anyone can be the hero, villain, or victim—and sometimes all three—at any given moment. This isn’t a crime novel with a mystery. It’s the exact opposite: there’s no mystery to the commission. This is a crime novel where the characters are anywhere from unknowing to complicit, but undoubtedly committing a crime of some kind. “The dance” may be the most dominant story theme that appears in the novel, as Lethem tells mugging tales from various neighbors’ perspectives. But the most interesting element is the socio-economic layer that runs through not only the explicit robbery of one person by another (or a few by a few), but the story of those referred to as premature gentrifiers who buy buildings because they can, and immediately begin renovating. They turn two levels of their brownstone to one, or, on the larger scale, turn holy places to prisons—thereby robbing Brooklyn. The robberies are comparable. While one kid puts another in a headlock and forces him to empty his pockets, gentrifiers are robbing neighborhoods of tradition and culture, and pushing out families and communities that have existed for generations. The Black kids can only hope to survive by trying to bridge the new white kids with the street or save them from its trappings, but it’s a thankless job that only alienates the Black kids from their own communities and doesn’t keep them safe from the racism or oppression that the new neighbors (unwittingly, perhaps) inflict. Lethem’s narrator subscribes to the same school of thought as the graffiti artist who speaks before the beat drops—he can only see the world through the crimes committed but also understands beauty can exist despite.
One criticism could be the racial dynamics that exist in the book. However unintentional, readers may notice a pattern of Black kids committing more crimes than the white kids or at the very least not being directly victimized as often. That said, it is just as possible that the narrator’s viewpoint is deliberately lacking that insight, thereby playing into the characterization of the neighbors who see the community members of color a particular way. It is certainly pointed out throughout the book how racism plays a part in some of the interactions between characters, but it’s also made clear how gentrification changing the neighborhood around them leaves them at a loss and forces those characters who are barely hanging on to find ways to navigate or be eliminated. Unfortunately, some respond with violence that goes far beyond the actions of “the dance.”
Brooklyn Crime Novel could be labeled as an unofficial sequel to Lethem’s earlier work, The Fortress of Solitude. Perhaps these stories happen just around the corner in the same literary universe. The same Dean Street narrator could be telling these stories between songs, breathing in tandem with his city of Brooklyn, waiting for the next track to play.
Brooklyn Crime Novel
By Jonathan Lethem
Published October 3, 2023