Jonathan Lethem’s new novel begins with a profane ultimatum: “Quit f-----g black cops or get booted from the Communist Party.” Now look at the first line of Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater: “Either forswear f-----g others or the affair is over.” An unlikely coincidence, given Lethem’s professed admiration for the Master. Other hat tips to Roth are evident in Dissident Gardens, a remarkable yet patchy contribution to the narrative of nostalgia that juxtaposes three generations of a Jewish American family doomed to unhappiness by their commitment to radical politics.
Despite its problems, this is Lethem’s best novel since Motherless Brooklyn, his award-winning mystery featuring a detective afflicted with Tourette’s. But here the setting is Queens, where fatherlessness is an issue for Miriam Zimmer, the red diaper baby of Rose and Arthur, a pair of mismatched Communists who achieve “full synthesis” during the Great Depression. But after the war, party honchos order the loose-lipped (and strangely acquiescent) Arthur to “reverse-exile” himself back to his native Germany (the eastern side, of course). Shocked and disillusioned, Rose acts out, ignores warnings. At the height of McCarthyism her hypocritically prudish, not-so egalitarian comrades expel her for sleeping with a black detective.
Beautiful, brilliant Miriam rejects her mother’s staid dialectic in favor of a fresher, more aggressive form of activism. “Her whole body demanded . . . gleaming cities in which revolution could be played out, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed.” She throws herself into the New Left, participates in marches, sit-ins, boycotts. But no Harrad experiments for this hippie. She remains faithful to her loser husband, an Irish folksinger whom she counted on becoming another Dylan until he showed himself to have little talent and less discipline. They move to Greenwich Village, where they start a commune.
In 1979, fed up with the culture of narcissism in the United States, they travel to Nicaragua and join the Sandinistas. They leave behind their 8-year-old son Sergius. Later, in the Age of Obama, he will try to piece together the truth about his mother’s past. This brings him to the coastal Maine home of Cicero Lookins, a black gay professor — and the son of Rose’s cop lover. While there, Sergius meets “a real live pistol-hot protester chick,” an unwashed devotee of the fading Occupy movement who will get him in trouble with terrorist-conscious TSA officials.
This brief summary doesn’t do justice to Lethem’s novel. Its pleasures transcend the sprawling plot, which jumps back and forth through time. Lethem once wrote a story called The King of Sentences, about a language-drunk literary genius (perhaps modeled after Donald Barthelme) for whom style was paramount. A claimant to the throne, Lethem composes sentences that crackle with wordplay and intelligence. Occasionally, however, his exuberance gets the better of him; his mile-a-minute prose can be exhausting to read.
Scenes could also have been cut. There is no reason for Miriam’s baseball-crazy cousin, an extraneous character who wears out his welcome, to have a lengthy discussion with Bill Shea, except that Lethem liked the now-demolished stadium that was named after him. And did Miriam have to be invited to a deservedly forgotten NBC game show? Or for her husband’s folksinging career to be given such lavish attention? Neither development moves the story forward.
But the path is strewn with jewels. Like the Coen Brothers, with whom he shares a predilection for genre experimentation, Lethem waited quite awhile before addressing the subject of Jewishness. The Coens finally did in their film, A Serious Man. In one exemplary chapter, Lethem has Rose watch an episode of All in the Family, in which Archie Bunker gives a eulogy for a self-hating Jewish friend. Sad and alone and showing signs of dementia, she imagines an encounter with Bunker at a Queens bar, where she learns a lesson about her own identity. Insightful and hilarious, this is work by a consummate artist at the pinnacle of his powers.
No other novel by Lethem has such strong female characters. They have to be; their men are weak, they need to be told what to do, otherwise they will remain stagnant.
Once again, Lethem has pulled off an unpredictable feat that should not be ignored. With each succeeding book, he comes closer to rivaling Philip Roth in stature.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.