In the past two decades, Jonathan Lethem has written, co-authored or edited 23 books, picking up a MacArthur “genius” grant along the way.
He shows no signs of flagging in his rich ninth novel, “Dissident Gardens,” an evocative, deeply sympathetic work about three generations of New Yorkers caught up in personal and global politics. Here’s a sketch of the main players:
Matriarch Rose Zimmer, a Communist stalwart from prewar days, fights for workers and other underdogs in her neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. As her marriage unravels in the 1940s, political loyalties also fray when the party censures her husband in 1947 and sends him abroad.
Divorced and raising their daughter, Miriam, Rose finds an unusual lover for the times in a black police officer, whose son she tutors in reading and causes. Her Communist Party nannies have a problem here too and expel her in 1955.
“They were troubled by her associations. They meant, of course, the association of her rapidly aging Jew Communist vagina with the black lieutenant’s sturdy and affectionate penis,” Lethem writes.
Miriam, 15 in ’55, trades Queens College for the tutelage of the Village Beats. She meets her future husband, Irish folk singer Tommy Gogan, when he joins Dave Van Ronk for a guitar lesson at the home of Reverend Gary Davis.
Miriam and Tommy will protest grapes, lettuce and capital punishment, and join the 1963 March on Washington. Eventually they’ll try to bring pacifism and music to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Their son, Sergius, raised in a Manhattan commune and a Quaker boarding school, later journeys to Maine to learn more about his family from the black cop’s son, Cicero, who owes his academic career to Rose’s early patronage. On the trip, 40-year-old Sergius will have a fling with a young woman he hears playing one of his father’s songs while she’s participating in an Occupy protest.
Lethem is known for mixing art and popular culture. “Dissident Gardens” offers two remarkable sections featuring the game show “Jeopardy” and sitcom character Archie Bunker.
There’s also an almost vaudevillian blend of Karl Marx and the Marx Brothers in a desperate effort by Rose’s nephew Lenny to bring a baseball club called the Sunnyside Proletarians to the new Shea Stadium -- with a team song written by Tommy: “Then from workers’ ranks a ball club rose! A starting nine to topple equality’s foes! Here to salve the people’s woes! The Sunnyside Pros!”
For the most part, though, Lethem’s humor is warm and rueful, recognizing both the sincerity and frustration that mark any effort to bring about change.
For Rose, ideals weren’t ideological. “They existed in the space between one person and another, secret sympathies of the body ... You found this where you found it, suddenly and without warning, at a certain meeting or protest.”
Personal and thematic resonances help tie together Lethem’s largely plotless gathering of episodes as they jump about for more than half a century. This chronological disorder, a kind of hyperactive nostalgia, fights against the straight lines in which we view history, reflecting how memory works, the way one who lived the times might revisit them, dropping in here and there.
Lethem has written elsewhere of being raised by hippies, quitting college, being something of an autodidact. His memories are partly at play here, especially it seems in how popular culture and politics might take hold. Ferdinand, the bull who refuses to fight, is the first book Sergius clings to.
A young Cicero recognizes Miriam’s “knack for making what he’d never heard of until that instant sound exactly like the life he craved for himself: dignified planet, Che Guevara, McSorley’s, falafel, Eldridge Cleaver, hashish, the Fugs, Ramblin’ Jack, dim sum.”
It’s also no small thing that this famously Brooklynite author has brought to life some of the neglected borough of Queens -- and so much life, so artfully, persuasively created. When a book pulls me for so long into a beautifully made world, there’s always a strange sensation upon the last page: I feel the air yanked from me in a sigh for endings and a whoosh of wow.
“Dissident Gardens” is published by Doubleday in the U.S. (366 pages, $27.95). It will be published in the U.K. in January by Cape. To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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