Reading Jonathan Lethem ...?

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I've become greatly enamoured with his writing in the past year (er, not what he's written in the past year, but what of his I have read in that time), especially Gun, With Occasional Music (one of my all-time favorite titles - and if I were ever inclined to form a band I'd probably steal the name). And I also quite liked She Climbed Across the Table, but was a bit disappointed with Motherless Brooklyn - the writing for the latter was brilliant and some aspects of the plot line were inspired, but the overall arching plot line with the gangsters and such struck me as being not terribly creative or new.

And now I have, sitting on my shelf and calling out to me, his Fortress of Solitude, Amnesia Moon, and Girl in Landscape - and I can't decide which of the three to add to my "I'm going to read something from this stack of books next" pile. Any suggestions? Thoughts? Did I miss something with Motherless Brooklyn?

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Friday, 23 January 2004 06:54 (nineteen years ago) link

Rah for Ms Laura posting again!

When ILE did the book club, Motherless Brooklyn was one of our books, and generally most people found it lacking originality just as you said re: its gangster angle. I however enjoyed it immensely for precisely the gangsterisms and the unsolving (that should be resolving obviously) of the mystery -- though I should note that I haven't read much detective fiction before.

Leee Majors (Leee), Friday, 23 January 2004 07:04 (nineteen years ago) link

I loved Motherless Brooklyn. Fortress of Solitude is pretty high on my reading list, but it always takes me awhile to commit to really long books (I always figure that I would rather read a couple of different things in the same amount of time). So what's the best out of his earlier work?

Jordan (Jordan), Friday, 23 January 2004 20:25 (nineteen years ago) link

I'm pretty much thrilled with Gun, With Occasional Music - kind of cyber-punk noir, with a mobster kangaroo, among other noteworthy characters. I think that the strength of the story is that Lethem doesn't explain a lot of aspects of the futuristic world - some are described, loosely, within context, but lots of things are left hanging, which allows the reader to freely imagine the circumstances of their development.

She Crawled Across the Table reminded me a lot of a Murakami tale - playing around with some physics and relationships and identity - interesting, but needs another round of editing, I think.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Saturday, 24 January 2004 01:25 (nineteen years ago) link

Fortress of Solitude is amazing, despite (a) a certain overwrittenness in patches (ex: there's some line about a paint chip falling and the floor "receiving its weight," which sounds pompous to me) and (b) a sort of insoluble structural problem, which is that everything happens in the first huge section, and the second section is simply Dylan Ebdus trying to deal with it. Some things happen there, but they almost seem incidental. The plot, being "Guy describes childhood; guy describes self as adult, unable to leave childhood," is not energeic. I'm not sure how much this is really a "problem"--since the effect of portraying Dylan as an adult who left Brooklyn too early and hasn't left it at all is quite moving, and you want to learn about his reunion with Mingus--but it'll rub most readers the wrong way.
Still. I've not read anybody who can use pop culture to characterize so well.

Phil Christman, Saturday, 24 January 2004 05:42 (nineteen years ago) link

Hmmm - okay, Fortress of Solitude has just moved further-up in my "Read These Next" pile. Thanks, Phil.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Monday, 26 January 2004 03:08 (nineteen years ago) link

I think She Climbed Across The Table would make a fantastic film (though the very ending might be hard). One of the few books in the last few years that I devoured in one (increasing chilly bath) sitting.

Pete (Pete), Monday, 26 January 2004 12:43 (nineteen years ago) link

*laughing* I was thinking the same thing about Gun, With Occasional Music, Pete - and that P. Jackson could pull off the irony and wit, without having to dumb-down everything. I agree with you about the ending to She Climbed Across the Table - it would be a challenge to convey those images and sensations to the viewers, but I don't know that it would be impossible, either.

So was the ending worth the chilly bathing?

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Tuesday, 27 January 2004 02:35 (nineteen years ago) link

Ms Laura, I hope you enjoy Fortress when you get around to it (in fact I'll feel like an ass otherwise, but I'm pretty confident you'll like it).
I thought As She Climbed was fun, but I never finished it, and it's like two pages long. Somehow wasn't compelled. Weird, huh? (I was kinda busy then.)
Did anyone else find out about Lethem in the same random way I did--his guest-editorship of the 2002 Best Music Writing volume? Had no clue about him before that.

Phil Christman, Tuesday, 27 January 2004 05:01 (nineteen years ago) link

Phil - don't sweat feeling like an ass - I'm sure that I'll enjoy Lethem's Fortress - but I doubt that anything will compare to my love of GWOM, which just tickles my reading response center like nothing else.

The conclusion of Across the Table was pretty much stream of consciousness stuff, near as I can recall (however, I think that I was reading it in the wee hours of the morning and that might be the explanation for my hazy recall and meandering ideas).

I stumbled across Lethem in the most typical way - bought his Motherless Brooklyn when it won the award and then was hooked.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Tuesday, 27 January 2004 05:30 (nineteen years ago) link

Ms. Laura, I'm gonna go with Amnesia Moon, and you should take my recommendation since I'm one of the other people who thinks GWOM is the best Lethem and that Motherless Brooklyn is not among his better ones. Amnesia Moon has something of the same anarcho-science-fictional channeled wildness. As does Girl in Landscape, but that one for whatever reason didn't ring for me as much. (Though I didn't know GiL was a rewrite of _The Searchers_ until I was embarrassed by having JL himself explain it to me the one time I met him through a friend of a friend.) OK but just to throw out one more thing--maybe you should get This Shape We're In, which is both my second-favorite Lethem book and the one most like Gun, With Occasional Music.

On the other hand, I haven't read Fortress of Solitude, so maybe it's great!

J. Ellenberg, Sunday, 1 February 2004 04:45 (nineteen years ago) link

*laughing* Okay, Jordan, I have taken your recommendation on Amnesia Moon - and as there was room for one new text in my "read these next" stack, AM has been added. Thanks for the suggestion.

I didn't know about Lethem's This Shape We're In - many thanks for bringing it to my attention (and to my latest "Order These Next" pile of sticky notes).

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Monday, 2 February 2004 21:31 (nineteen years ago) link

one year passes...
I have discovered this thread at last, having read that book, TFofS.

Phil C has a good point, about structure. The book feels unbalanced, perhaps in just the way he describes.

But I suppose to me the book is never quite right; its attitudes and preoccupations - its sense of what fascinates - are always a little askew and alien to mine.

Yet I don't mean in saying this to detract from the writer's forceful gift. Maybe - yes - maybe he uses a little too much force.

the dreamfox, Wednesday, 2 March 2005 19:24 (eighteen years ago) link

Anyone read his personal history essay in the NYer last week : "The Beards"? He talks about his relationship to the work of various writers, musicians and film-makers growing up and how his consumption of their work became a kind of "beard" for his own state of adolescence. Interesting insights.

o. nate (onate), Wednesday, 2 March 2005 19:54 (eighteen years ago) link

i have not long finished this book too and also found it unbalanced - i LOVED the first section and the first 50 or so pages of the latter section. The second half of the book was didn't ring true and seemed to stretch my suspension of disbelief just too far. I couldnt understand why the ring had changed its powers and didn't swallow it. the section at the end of the book concerning the prison visit (trying not to give too much away here) felt forced and unbelievable, almost laughable, and the meeting in the last 15 pages or so just seemed meaningless to me: I'd much rather Dylan had reconnected with his father. Also i just wasn't sufficiently interested in Mingus to understand why Dylan was so drawn to him. Mingus seemed pretty dull to me, in fact.

As phil said upthread, the book is very overwritten - at points embarrassingly so: "his hair was astonishingly equal in length everywhere on his head"; "that shadows stood sipping from paper bags as he struggled down to join his bicycle on the pavement was only appropriate, matched his mood" (huh?) and who has ever seen girls skipping rope and seen their knees "shining like bunches of grapes" ....Bunches of grapes?!

At one point Dylan describes Arthur Lomb as "making such a show of a card unplayed that he tipped his whole hand"; sometimes Lethem does just that.

jed_ (jed), Wednesday, 2 March 2005 21:41 (eighteen years ago) link


jed_ (jed), Wednesday, 2 March 2005 21:44 (eighteen years ago) link

Well said, Jed.

the bellefox, Thursday, 3 March 2005 14:49 (eighteen years ago) link

It's difficult to believe "This Shape We're In" was written before 9/11. Just reading finished reading it, assumed it was a comment on our all too easy prodding, after "thirty years of lying in wait, of losing ourselves in distraction and disillusion, of losing siggt of our rhyme and reason, our deep-embedded programming, come to a grand and glorious end as we spill out of hiding and smite them high and hard, finally take it to the hole. Why shouldn't they get what's coming? I mean, what the fuck was I so afraid of?" to turn a bombing on our shores into a war elsewhere. But it came out in February, 2001. Uncanny.

Carl Solomon, Sunday, 13 March 2005 19:06 (eighteen years ago) link

Rumor has it he'll be speaking at Bennington as commencement type.

Remy (null) (x Jeremy), Monday, 14 March 2005 09:00 (eighteen years ago) link

I'm just getting into Fortress Of Solitude, finally. It's interesting so far, but hasn't really grabbed me yet.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Monday, 14 March 2005 20:41 (eighteen years ago) link

one year passes...
I wrote this somewhere else about his next one:

Over the weekend I read an advance of Jonathan Lethem's new novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. It's pretty good even though it's about an indie rock band.

I was a little worried that he had fizzled out after Fortress of Solitude (i.e. his (over)ambitious novel that tied up a lot of autobiography and pet themes), that he developed an Axl Rose complex. That was in '03 and only compilations of earlier stuff (good short stories and bad essays) have come out since. So, while YDLMY may not be quite as good as his earlier genre-jacking novels I'm enough of a fan that I'm glad he's having fun again. It's a slight book and very readable, so I was able to blow through it during a three-gig weekend.

Also, the parts about rock shows and being in a band are waaaay less embarassing than when most other writers try to cover that sort of thing.

One of the only advance reviews I was able to find mentioned that it's a rewrite of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which if true might completely change my impression. Or it might not.

Jordan (Jordan), Tuesday, 21 November 2006 20:13 (seventeen years ago) link

send it on blud. send it on : (

tom west (thomp), Tuesday, 21 November 2006 22:43 (seventeen years ago) link

I tried YSI but it didn't work :(

Jordan (Jordan), Wednesday, 22 November 2006 05:41 (seventeen years ago) link

Fortress of Solitude is one of the few novels i have found to seriously address the moral and aesthetic concerns of people my age, with a severity and belief in old fashioned narrative construction, it is funny, and tragic, and sexy in equal measures, adn actually takes things liek comic books and jazz, cocaine and funk to be important, for their own sake, and not as objects of pastiche. it moved me deeply.

he wrote a short story for the new yorker, called super goat man, that is in equal measures a parody of new yorker stories, a story about the death of qausi fascist super heros, and a tender/tragic medetation on the nature of masculinity and masculine is both amusing, bitter, and something else, new and stranger, i have no idea why the new yorker decided to publish it, but i am glad they did, and that they illustrated it with a barney cremaster centaur suggested they knew what tehy were doing. i dont know where it is collected--but it is one of my favourite short stories.

pinkmoose (jacklove), Friday, 24 November 2006 03:34 (seventeen years ago) link

one month passes...
haven't read You Don't Love Me Yet bt read the feb harper's at the library. lethem's piece regards sampling in the most abstract sense, the essay itself a cut-up from sources across the spectrum. He gets beyond the schismic polarity of the argument towards the real issue of the recycling of idea, the refinement (read revision) therein and the absurdity of copywrite law but the necessity of getting power (read money) for your work-- creativity versus the empire of dead ideas, and he doesn't mention the long tail curve, etc

realkwaint (HGULTRUILLUM), Tuesday, 16 January 2007 15:57 (sixteen years ago) link


realkwaint (HGULTRUILLUM), Tuesday, 16 January 2007 17:09 (sixteen years ago) link

i sort of hoped that the second half of that essay would have been trhe whole thing

pinkmoose (jacklove), Friday, 19 January 2007 17:02 (sixteen years ago) link

Read Girl In Landscape, She Crawled Across the Table and Motherless Brooklyn in quick succession about a year ago. Enjoyed them, though they all seemed bound by genre and an attention to fashionable narrative styles.

They add up to an interesting growth chart:

TEENS - The isolated adolescent of Girl, her late-80s/early-80s revisionist sci-fi western setting, and the way it all disguises a fairly straigtforward story of parental disintegration.

TWENTIES - In She Crawled, post-postgrad profs plough through the Rudy Rucker playbook as they try to sort out what love is and means. The mania of discovery and newness, a sense of the fragmentated fallout of youthful idealism.

THIRTIES - Motherless Brooklyn. Here, we get the first hints of age, regret and nostalgia, as the optimistic youth of science fiction is exchanged for the embattled weariness of pulp detection. Old neighborhoods vanish, love is rueful and doomed.

Haven't read Fortress of Solitude or Gun, with Occasional Music. Wonder how those'd slot into the scheme...

verbose, bombastic, self-immolating (Pye Poudre), Monday, 22 January 2007 19:29 (sixteen years ago) link

Based on a quick read some years ago, I'd say GUN is mid-twenties territory. Can't elaborate without re-reading, though.

Laurel (Laurel), Monday, 22 January 2007 19:48 (sixteen years ago) link

Anyone read this? Looks fun, republished genre stuff from early in his career.

Jordan (Jordan), Monday, 22 January 2007 20:08 (sixteen years ago) link

I'm not a huge Lethem fan, but I somehow ended up reading Motherless Brooklyn when it came out and listening to an audiobook version last year. Whoever reads on the audiobook does a pretty amazing job with it. I recall being turned off by reading Lionel's dialogue in the book; listening to it was much more enjoyable. The guy also does a great job w/ Frank Minna.

Jamesy (SuzyCreemcheese), Monday, 29 January 2007 14:15 (sixteen years ago) link

It's Steve Buscemi!!

Jordan (Jordan), Monday, 29 January 2007 17:19 (sixteen years ago) link

You know, this is strange but I think there is more than one audio recording. After a little research, I think Frank Muller did the reading I listened to (and what's funny is that even uses the buscemi write-up for the Frank Muller version).

Jamesy (SuzyCreemcheese), Monday, 29 January 2007 19:53 (sixteen years ago) link

four months pass...

okay a friend of mine just loaned me You Don't Love Me Yet and I am really dreading reading it. If its like the last third of Fortress of Solitudex10 I don't think I can handle it. I miss the sci-fi surrealism

Shakey Mo Collier, Monday, 18 June 2007 18:12 (sixteen years ago) link

I like SF surrealism when doen well, but I thought he did it badly (based only on 'As she climbed across the table' or whatever it was called, which left me distinctly underwhelmed).

James Morrison, Monday, 18 June 2007 23:21 (sixteen years ago) link

YDLMY = some nice touches, and a book cover so nicely designed i felt overfashionable reading it in public, but maybe kinda just maaaaybe a flop.

'how we got insipid' - i haven't read the other story, but 'how we got in town and out again' is in (at least the uk edition of) his back-when-he-was-an-SF-author collection the wall of the sky, the wall of the eye: it's an okayish i guess rewrite of that old noirish novel about the kids doing a dance-til-you-drop competition, but instead they're in some kind of sexed-up virtual reality environment. it at least manages to avoid being dreadful.

i reread men and cartoons after forcing myself thro fortress again for my undergrad dissertation, it's still good-to-brilliant throughout, except for the what-is-it-doing-here early-career shorty story.

s. buscemi doing motherless brooklyn sounds brilliant.

the youth/young adulthood/middle age bit doesn't so much work with those three novels as i don't think he came up with them in that order. ahem.

thomp, Wednesday, 20 June 2007 00:56 (sixteen years ago) link

you liked men and cartoons? really? i remember finding it awful + i liked fortress & motherless brooklyn. i cant remember my actual problems w/ the book so my opinions arent going to be v illuminating but which was the story they included that was real old?

t_g, Thursday, 28 June 2007 13:15 (sixteen years ago) link

'access fantasy'

for 'good-to-brilliant' read maybe 'passable-to-really-good', i guess.

thomp, Friday, 29 June 2007 01:46 (sixteen years ago) link

I finished Fortress last night. I almost loved it, but ever since I passed the liner note I've had the feeling that the whole doesn't quite add up. The first two-thirds I did love, and bits here and there in the rest (the chapter about 'Dose' in particular). It's not quite third-person-good first-person-bad - it's more like past-good present-bad. Which is maybe fitting.

What's weird is that normally, when I've read a book, it's obvious to me whether I should forget it, and if not who I should recommend it to. With Fortress, though, I have no idea what to do with it. Partly I'm not sure how good it really is. But mostly it's that the blend of references feels like it has been written for no-one but me. And I don't even like soul/comics/graffiti/cocaine that much.

Ismael Klata, Friday, 29 June 2007 14:19 (sixteen years ago) link

The first half of Fortress is breath-taking in its gorgeous prose. The first time I read the book, I was so utterly disappointed at the tense shift for the second half that I considered the book a failure. Having read it again a few months ago, I'm coming around to it. Lethem has said that he wanted the reader to feel this sadness at the past gone by, and the abandoning of that magical sort of prose from Dylan's childhood is supposed to embody that. It's not just some capricious change of style that Lethem did just to screw with the reader. A friend of mine who read it at the same time says he understands that impulse, but wonders if there couldn't have been some other way of marking that passage of time (or loss of it, I guess), other than blowing up the prose. The "human cipher human dream" line from the end gives me goosebumps every time I think of it, though.

PS - Has anyone heard the Prisonaires? They're okay, in my opinion. Nothing real classic.

jposnan, Tuesday, 3 July 2007 01:29 (sixteen years ago) link

two weeks pass...

The remarks upthread about the overwritten parts of Fortress are OTM. The very first sentence is so precious I almost didn't keep going. For all its great descriptive moments and insights, the novel repeatedly stumbles over its own ambitions. In general, I wish Lethem would relax as a writer--he always seems to be trying to live up to his rep, and it's crippling his style. The stuff he's done for Rolling Stone (JB, Dylan) has been dreadful.

Martin Van Burne, Thursday, 19 July 2007 15:35 (sixteen years ago) link

Partly I'm not sure how good it really is. But mostly it's that the blend of references feels like it has been written for no-one but me. And I don't even like soul/comics/graffiti/cocaine that much.

Wow, this is exactly how I felt about it. Although I liked the realist parts a lot more than the magical realist superhero parts.

Hurting 2, Thursday, 19 July 2007 21:16 (sixteen years ago) link

One more thing: why call the first section of the book 'Underberg'?

Ismael Klata, Monday, 23 July 2007 09:34 (sixteen years ago) link

I wish Lethem would relax as a writer--he always seems to be trying to live up to his rep, and it's crippling his style.

otm, judging from that autobiograpical thing in the new yorker about growing up w/music or whatever, he was just flailing away there. more proof that writing about yourself is a whole different process than making stuff up. and mixing the two may be the trickiest of all.

motherless brooklyn was great, a tour-de-force in some respects, but it would be a shame if that turns out to be his peak. here's hoping he snaps back with a trim, tightly constructed new novel. soon.

m coleman, Monday, 23 July 2007 10:39 (sixteen years ago) link

four months pass...

I really enjoyed his story in the last New Yorker!

Hurting 2, Tuesday, 18 December 2007 00:25 (fifteen years ago) link

Recently read Amnesia Moon and Men and Cartoons (after reading several other Lethem novels in quick succession a while back). Loved the wild imagination of AM, reminded me of PK Dick and Tim Powers circa Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Felt rushed, unfinished, ultimately a bit disappointing in its rush to tie everything up, but still great.

Men and Cartoons was a letdown. Much too distanced and mannered. I get the sense that he's trying to cram himself into a "respectable contemporary fiction" suit, and the results are awkward, less than memorable. In his early writing, there was this thick skin of genre storytelling through which you could nonetheless see Lethem struggling to engage with the actual material of life. That's what makes those early books so fascinating, whether or not you evaluate them in a sci-fi context.

In his recent stuff, though, that tension is absent. He's just another comfortable post-postmodernist flogging his pop-cultural baggage while writing workshop fiction. Kind of a drag.

Anybody else reading the comic book?

contenderizer, Friday, 21 December 2007 00:11 (fifteen years ago) link

Thanks for the heads up about that short story, Hurting, I liked it too.

Jordan, Friday, 21 December 2007 15:43 (fifteen years ago) link

Definitely felt the Kafka influence

Hurting 2, Friday, 21 December 2007 18:45 (fifteen years ago) link

Liked it too, busy eating my words. No trace left of anything "postmodern" or "pop-cultural" in it. Straightforward realist fiction, but not at all dull or prissy. Elegant, creepy, well observed. Get Kafka in the neighborhood paranoia and alienation, but Cheever too.

Maybe he's better of on one side of the fence or the other, rather than straddling the middle.

contenderizer, Friday, 21 December 2007 22:13 (fifteen years ago) link

I didn't think the ending was that straightforward realist - it was a tad absurd.

Hurting 2, Friday, 21 December 2007 22:46 (fifteen years ago) link

in that case, "manhattan seen as a chessboard" is what i'd call a shared belief system within this book -- not a particularly demanding or stakes-raising one, admittedly, and not one lethem necessarily needs to share (tho he does need to be able to identify it). morever, its status as shared belief system is initiated (ie foreshadowed) via the first description, which signals that it's more than an amusing momentary linking but a shaping attitude we shd be looking out for.

it kind of messes this up (a) by being somewhat heavyhanded but (b) also tossing in the idea of revolution. in the first place chess doesn't have revolutions, and if it did, it's not at all evident they would make the chessboard round --even if they were galilean rather than idk french- or russian-type revolutions?

(caveat again: this is all the lethem i've ever read)

mark s, Thursday, 23 August 2018 10:48 (five years ago) link

I think you are calling a 'belief system' what I would call a 'metaphor'.

the pinefox, Thursday, 23 August 2018 17:07 (five years ago) link

I agree about the problem with 'revolutions', which is also an instance of what I keep calling hyperbole.

the pinefox, Thursday, 23 August 2018 17:08 (five years ago) link

Okay, Tom Dedlock is ilx0r Tom D plus a Dickens character from Bleak House shoved into the first sentence of Joyce’s “The Dead” walking into a thread in which said ilx0r has participated. Nothing to see here.

The Vermilion Sand Reckoner (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 23 August 2018 18:47 (five years ago) link

It's too bad, because I've really been in the mood for some literary sci-fi/genre-bending.

So, any suggestions for new entries? I feel like it's increasingly hard to find new fiction where the writing is sentence-level great and also has, shall we say, thrillpower.

I realize there may not be much market incentive these days for young authors to spend time creating work like this and satisfy my specific entertainment desires, but I'd love something that hits that old Lethem/David Mitchell sweet spot.

change display name (Jordan), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:49 (five years ago) link

Karen Tidbeck

Οὖτις, Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:55 (five years ago) link

altho for more in-depth discussion I recommend that rolling spec fic thread

Οὖτις, Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:55 (five years ago) link


change display name (Jordan), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 20:57 (five years ago) link

Back to CHRONIC CITY. A big book, may take me a little while.

I'm interested and for me it's the JL crux book - the one where I'm unsure whether it's a last great JL novel to date, or a lazy meander; or which of those in greatest proportion.

I have a sense that JL and others have wanted Perkus Tooth to be a great character. And I've been somewhat resistant; felt that this was forced; that the character isn't that great. But I'll reassess now.

The other thing that strikes me is that JL is much more deeply into drugs than I'd ever realized. A common problem for me as someone who's never taken drugs.

the pinefox, Friday, 7 September 2018 14:29 (five years ago) link

I sense that much is hanging on the idea of 'friendship with Perkus Tooth' as the essence of the book.

Friendship is quite a good theme, and friendship around discussion, culture, music (as on ilx, even) -- is probably an underrated, underwritten theme, and credit to JL for hitting on it.

But does he make this friendship very vivid or warm? I'm not too sure. I have never even really been able to picture Tooth.

My other hunch has been that JL uses Tooth as a funnel for his own obsessions - Mailer, Brando, Cassavetes - airing them in a 'deniable' way - so Tooth is a useful intellectual alter ego figure, a way of channelling material and making it daft rather than making it look like JL's own ideas.

the pinefox, Friday, 7 September 2018 14:46 (five years ago) link

About 250pp in, a couple of thoughts:

1: quite favourable -- the bad things about the book (the meandering, etc) don't annoy me as much as I thought. It's the last FUN JL novel, at least.

2: I think he is genuinely trying here to do some kind of 'everyday life' narrative, almost 'in real time' - kind of an experiment. The writer it's all closest to, in a way, is Geoff Dyer.

3: the twist at the end seems slightly more foreshadowed than I'd seen first time round (with a lot of hints about paranoia and secrets), but I still need to get to the end to understand it (again?). I cannot remember the real exact relations between Janice and Oona.

4: quite a lot of small nods back to other JL. An example: Perkus's apartment appears to be on the same street as the Yorkville Zendo in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN.

5: DFW comes off worse here than I'd thought, with OBSTINATE DUST being promptly thrown into a ravine.

the pinefox, Saturday, 8 September 2018 17:54 (five years ago) link

It's a pity, or maybe it's necessary, that Mark S hasn't read this novel as he seems to me the closest UK equivalent I know to Perkus Tooth.

Though the more intense and political side of Perkus Tooth might even be a bit like our old friend Prof Carmody.

the pinefox, Saturday, 8 September 2018 17:56 (five years ago) link

given that this is quite good and OMEGA THE UNKNOWN is very good, as is THEY LIVE (2010) in fact -- I tend to conclude that the late 2000s were actually a surprisingly OK period for JL.

the pinefox, Saturday, 8 September 2018 17:57 (five years ago) link

perk s

mark s, Saturday, 8 September 2018 20:44 (five years ago) link

It all adds up !!

the pinefox, Sunday, 9 September 2018 07:08 (five years ago) link

to get back to the point abt metaphor vs belief system: obviously sometimes a cigar is just a cigar! not all metaphors are more than momentary -- but if a metaphor recurs, esp. if wound into the conversation and thoughts of more than one character, then i think it's worth seeing if it's a shaping force in the (shared?) worldview of the ppl being described, since sometimes it will be!

and sometimes it goes even deeper: as per "pathetic fallacy", which is an authorial worldview or belief system, that the behaviour of the non-living world (the weather, the landscape) not only amplifies but reflects what's going on in the lives of the (written) living -- a metaphor can certainly be an indicator that "as below so above" is in operation, in the minds of character and/or in the mind of the author

but not necessarily always and it's quite likely a dangerpoint for a book, since overegged belief-systems can be alienating

example: moby dick in moby-dick, not just a metaphor -- the whale as symbol of something takes over the minds of (almost) the crew (and the narrator -- who says he's been similarly taken over but perhaps actually hasn't in the end -- spends most of the book exploring things that whales are, and also mean

mark s, Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:06 (five years ago) link

All I can think of is Neil saying to Rik 'so most metaphors don't bear close examination.'

The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums (Chinaski), Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:26 (five years ago) link

i feel that the academic study of eng lit as it has on the whole emerged is not of neil's mind here

mark s, Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:28 (five years ago) link

also the young ones was written by ben elton, a man insanely over-committed to the comedy simile

mark s, Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:31 (five years ago) link

Haha. Yes. The reductio ad absurdum of the left.

The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums (Chinaski), Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:33 (five years ago) link

James Wood on Melville and metaphor: "Metaphors have a life of their own...Melville had a way of following
metaphor, and seeing where it led him. At times he is *compelled by the metaphor he inhabits...Of course no one is actually forced by metaphor, except a madman. But Melville's writing certainly displays an unusual devotion to the logic of metaphor, which is the logic of parallelism. Of all writers, he understood the independent, generative life that comes from likening something to something else. His work is deeply aware that as soon as you liken x to y, x has changed, and is now x+y, which has is its own parallel life...Melville reads as if he simply cannot tear himself away from the rival life, the alienated majesty, that metaphor offers".

This has always struck me as a good way to read Ballard. He has a series of almost universal metaphors (a cosmology?) that he pushes to a logical conclusion - like the madman in Wood's dictum.

The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums (Chinaski), Sunday, 9 September 2018 10:33 (five years ago) link

I haven't read (most people's favourite book) MOBY-DICK, so can't comment on its metaphors.

I agree with the view that metaphors can point to ideas, feelings or, let's say, 'ways of seeing', but I probably wouldn't normally call those 'belief systems', myself.

Funnily enough the sense of metaphor as taking on its own life or becoming preponderant, as in that Wood quotation, is also something that Lethem tends to say.

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 15:16 (five years ago) link

I finished rereading CHRONIC CITY today. I think it has gone up in my mind from a 6-7/10 Lethem to maybe even an 8/10 Lethem -- on a par, say, with AMNESIA MOON and GIRL IN LANDSCAPE. (Actually GIRL IN LANDSCAPE is one of its closest precursors in its ranginess, though it also echoes elements of various other books.)

I still don't think that I grasp the central plot or conspiracy clearly enough. The depth of Chase's amnesia about his own life is hardly explained.

Some of characters' 'motivation' is also not plain to me at all - for instance the way successive characters lovingly adopt a 3-legged dog does not seem very real. If a friend of mine had done that with a dog, and died, I would not take on the dog and sleep with it every night. Equally Oona's overall motivation for what she does in relation to Chase is not clear.

I don't know whether I am missing something or whether JL didn't really bother to think any of this through in a realistic way at all.

The encounter with the tiger works well, is poetic and powerful.

Once I had finished the book, on a park bench, I walked up to a bookshop I knew. Somehow I wanted to find books related to it, even if not to buy them. As I approached, I saw a digger digging a hole in the road outside it, and police lines of tape cordoning off the roads and pavements all around. In the circumstances, it was uncannily reminiscent of the book itself.

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 15:23 (five years ago) link

Note re metaphor -- we didn't seem to have any examples of what Mark S was saying ie:

"if a metaphor recurs, esp. if wound into the conversation and thoughts of more than one character, then i think it's worth seeing if it's a shaping force in the (shared?) worldview of the ppl being described"

I can think of one. I recently saw the film GUYS & DOLLS and was awed anew by its comic and musical magnificence.

In the title song, the singers - three dedicated gamblers - repeatedly sing that if you see a male doing something, it's likely that he's doing it for a woman, and the *likelihood* element is expressed in terms of gambling. This (which I already somewhat knew) struck me as charming and wonderfully coherent at the time. I think it is a clear instance of what is mentioned above.

But as it's a song in a musical, I do not think it follows that the same thing would transfer so extensively into prose fiction.

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 22:16 (five years ago) link

Call it sad, call it funny
But it's better than even money
That the guy's only doing it for some doll

Call it hell, call it heaven
But it's probable twelve to seven
That the guy's only doing it for some doll

Call it dumb, call it clever
Ah, but you can get odds forever
That the guy's only doing it for some doll

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 22:16 (five years ago) link

(This song is fabulous, but none of this has much to do with Lethem btw. The one actual JL connection is MARLON BRANDO.)

the pinefox, Monday, 10 September 2018 22:17 (five years ago) link

The more I think about it and go over it, the clearer I am that CHRONIC CITY improves with rereading. I can now almost imagine thinking it's one of the best or most important JL novels.

It doesn't have the discipline nor the humour of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, or GUN, or the intensity of FORTRESS. But once you clear those out of the way I'm not sure it's much inferior to any of the others. In fact it might even be better, or at least more enjoyable, than the novel it perhaps thematically shares most with -- AMNESIA MOON.

The Perkus Tooth character, which I had felt overblown, now works somewhat better for me. His final statement about rock critics has real poignancy. All remarkably close to Mark S's new book.

All this, on JL's post-9/11 book, on 9/11.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 11 September 2018 19:13 (five years ago) link

wait you haven't read my book

mark s, Tuesday, 11 September 2018 21:24 (five years ago) link

I have heard a lot about it ! :D

the pinefox, Tuesday, 11 September 2018 22:45 (five years ago) link

Read to the end of THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE at last. This becomes very moving - it's a magnificent book as a whole, up there almost with the great JL fictions.

The one thing I still haven't read in that book is the 40-page James Brown essay. I don't really know James Brown.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:00 (five years ago) link

he's good, he's the minister of the new new super heavy funk

mark s, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:05 (five years ago) link

Mark, you mentioned to me that you had liked JL's talk at a music conference? Was this 2007?

I think this is an article I just reread - 'dancing about architecture, or, fifth beatles'. It was OK! Considering JL's other accomplishments he is not bad at occupying the ILM-esque pop / rock / ism discussion territory.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:57 (five years ago) link

all here:

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 10:58 (five years ago) link

(actually that version is a bit confusingly different from the one in the book)

the pinefox, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 11:00 (five years ago) link

yes 2007: i enjoyed it as i listened to it but was very jet-lagged and remember not a word of it -- i will have to reacquaint myself with its content

(and i will when i get this other book-related admin done)

mark s, Wednesday, 12 September 2018 11:06 (five years ago) link

DISSIDENT GARDENS -- I think I can admire the jigsaw-puzzle narrative structure.

But it is still let down by an attitude to characterization, motive, idea: basically the old Pynchon / Rushdie problem.

YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET -- on the other hand, holds up surprisingly OK on a second reading. I'm even more dubious this time about a woman happily accepting the attentions of a strange older man (pre-'Me Too' content, so to speak). But the one thing this book does remarkably well is represent the actual experience of playing in a band. I can't remember ever feeling this depicted so truly anywhere else.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:41 (five years ago) link

It is striking that YDLMY is relatively 'realist' JL, but doesn't have the bad Pynchon / Rushdie style. Proof that he didn't, doesn't, really need to go down that road just because he isn't writing SF or fantasy.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:43 (five years ago) link

HOW WE GOT INSIPID one more time.

'Insipid Profession' stands up well as a combination of cute detective story (an obscure addition to the JL detective canon), art expertise (maybe taken too far - but there is a whole theme of visual art in JL that someone could write about), and Gothic / scary stuff.

'How We Got In Town And Out Again' has appeal in theory (SF, virtual reality, post-apocalyptic landscape) but feels maybe too inconsequential or uncompleted. The 16-year-old narrator lacks dynamism, insight, doesn't bring much life to the story.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 18 September 2018 09:46 (five years ago) link

Idiot Tooth.

the pinefox, Tuesday, 25 September 2018 07:41 (five years ago) link

eleven months pass...

The trailer for MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN disappointed me.

I knew that the novel was being resituated in an earlier era, but the entire story seems to have been changed.

This seems a waste, given that the original story was tremendous, probably the best JL has ever come up with.

the pinefox, Thursday, 29 August 2019 07:33 (four years ago) link

two years pass...

6-minute film of Lethem on Lem, adapted from recent LRB article.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 09:21 (one year ago) link

This reminds me, should I read The Arrest?

Les hommes de bonbons (cryptosicko), Wednesday, 4 May 2022 14:31 (one year ago) link

It's not his best novel, but it's his most SF / speculative novel since CHRONIC CITY. If you happen to like Lethem then yes, worth a go: quite quick to read, with extremely short chapters.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 15:03 (one year ago) link

Love that. I've been reading Lem Two for the last few months.


change display name (Jordan), Wednesday, 4 May 2022 15:04 (one year ago) link

I've read Motherless Brooklyn (striking!) and You Don't Love Me Yet (can't remember). I think Brooklyn makes more lasting impressions.

youn, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 18:56 (one year ago) link

(but that may be the anonymity of globalized poverty safe culture)

youn, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 18:58 (one year ago) link

A novel that reminds me of Motherless Brooklyn is Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. A similar story about Los Angeles may have already been told, or I wish I could write it, but I haven't lived centrally enough and would probably need to go back in time a bit.

youn, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 19:02 (one year ago) link

notes found in a bathtub is a pretty good lem, super paranoid spy farce

Bongo Jongus, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 19:18 (one year ago) link

i actually started THE ARREST last week, and stopped when i realized that i just didn't want to learn any more about one particular character

there's nothing wrong with the book, though -- just a matter of personal preference

mookieproof, Wednesday, 4 May 2022 19:33 (one year ago) link

one year passes...

Recent Lethem article in New Yorker.

*The Invention of a Neighborhood*


In 1977, a staff writer for The New Yorker named Jervis Anderson journeyed to Dean Street in Brooklyn, to the neighborhood now known as Boerum Hill, to interview the people who lived there. His article in the November 14th issue, titled “The Making of Boerum Hill,” portrayed the place as a microcosm of “one of the remarkable urban developments in recent times—the brownstone-renovation movement.” What drew Anderson to Boerum Hill isn’t certain. It’s possible he’d lived there when he first moved to the city from Jamaica, in 1958, to study at N.Y.U. In an autobiographical essay from 1966, he wrote, “In those early days, New York was to me Washington Square, the A train, and Brooklyn.”

What seems to have fascinated Anderson about Boerum Hill was the tenuousness of the neighborhood’s creation. “The name had been coined so recently, and by such a small number of the residents, that people who had been living in the area all their lives had never heard of Boerum Hill and hadn’t the slightest idea where it was,” Anderson writes. Initially, he explains, the campaign to establish the neighborhood, undertaken in order to protect dilapidated row houses from being condemned and demolished, “faltered in the face of a firm conviction that Boerum Hill existed only in the heads of the people who had thought it up.”

Boerum Hill was thought up in my lifetime, by people I knew. Anderson’s account of them is prescient. It reveals a white middle-class population not only dislodging a poor and diverse one but defining them out of the picture. Yet few seemed aware that they were doing anything wrong.

The blocks that became Boerum Hill were ringed, mostly, by older and more clearly defined precincts, like the traditionally posh Brooklyn Heights, the Italian-immigrant enclave Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope and Fort Greene, shaped by long-standing Irish and Black homeownership, respectively. None of these places were simple. Their fortunes rose and fell with changes typical of urban life in the postwar twentieth century—white flight, and redlining by banks that preferred “urban renewal” projects and deals with developers to the renovation of old buildings. But those had been recognized neighborhoods to begin with.

The new Boerum Hill was something less, or more. Scooped out of what was loosely known as North Gowanus, it was bounded on the north by downtown Brooklyn, a district of commerce and civic institutions, and on the south by two large housing projects, built in 1949 and 1966, and by the famously polluted industrial Gowanus Canal. In the early nineteen-sixties, when the brownstoners Anderson interviewed first moved there, the blocks of Dean Street, Pacific Street, and Bergen Street, now known for the beauty of their restoration—or for their scandalous multimillion-dollar listings—were at risk of wholesale demolition. Some buildings were vacant and crumbling; others were rooming houses filled with men, many of them retired dockworkers, or they were home to Black or Puerto Rican or Dominican families. A community of Native Americans from Canada and upstate New York, Mohawks who’d come to build skyscrapers, had also lived in the area, and their traces were still in evidence.

The zone was more a crossroads than a neighborhood. In a process now familiar, it was transformed, not by real-estate speculation—at the start, bankers and developers wanted no part of these buildings—but by the arrival of white artists and idealistic leftists who valorized integration.

Igrew up on Dean Street. Some of Jervis Anderson’s subjects were parents of the children I ran with on the block; he might have passed us on his way up the stoop of a brownstone. The New Yorker was a common token among the aspirant middle class in the neighborhood. I learned to leaf through it backward, for the cartoons and for Pauline Kael. Yet I missed Anderson’s piece—perhaps that issue wasn’t one that was left out on the coffee table. When I discovered it, four years ago, I felt not only that I’d tunnelled through time to 1977 but that it offered something I’d long been denied. I’d spent years trying to conjugate the divisions I detected, as a child, among the white adults in my neighborhood. They’d chosen sides, at some point, over minute differences in attitude concerning their presence in Boerum Hill, and then covered the disagreement in silence. Here they were, talking.

I’d stumbled across a companion I hadn’t known to wish for—yet an elusive one. Anderson’s presence is sublimated, as was typical of the style of The New Yorker under William Shawn’s editorship, and typical, too, of Anderson’s own style: self-effacing, to an unusual degree.

There had been Black staffers at The New Yorker before Anderson. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who with her classmate Hamilton Holmes broke the color line at the University of Georgia, did the same for the magazine’s writing staff when she was elevated from assistant to staff writer, in 1964. Dorothy Dean, whose fabulous, tragic life is portrayed in Hilton Als’s book “The Women,” worked in the fact-checking department in the same period. Yet Anderson, from the time of his hiring, in 1968, until the arrival of Jamaica Kincaid, in 1976, was the lone Black staff writer at the magazine. He wrote pieces on Alex Haley and Ralph Ellison, and a four-part series about Harlem, later collected as “This Was Harlem,” by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Anderson also wrote biographies of the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph and of Randolph’s extroverted lieutenant Bayard Rustin, an early mentor of Anderson’s.

Unlike Rustin, and unlike his hero James Baldwin, Anderson was soft-spoken. Few staffers who recalled him to me failed to mention his reserve. “He was a solitary guy,” Ian Frazier said. Of their conversations in the hall, Frazier told me, “Mostly these were about Shawn not running our pieces.” Jamaica Kincaid, who worked alongside Frazier—known as Sandy—as a writer for the Talk of the Town, shared a story about how Anderson had once given her a kiss as he passed her in the hallway. “I immediately ran to Sandy’s office,” she said. “I told him what had just happened and we laughed ourselves silly because Jervis was so mild-mannered, not seemingly vulnerable to such passionate outbursts. The kiss was most welcomed by me because he was attractive and brilliant.” Anderson was a democratic socialist, according to the staff writer Hendrik Hertzberg. The two men bonded in the magazine’s offices over politics, and Hertzberg suggested to me that Anderson’s deeper commitments may have been outside The New Yorker: “The Irving Howe crowd, the whole Dissent masthead, those were Jervis’s real friends.”

Nowadays, the term “gentrification” has become as familiar, and as blandly elastic, as “Kafkaesque” or “fascism.” The word doesn’t appear in Anderson’s article. (It doesn’t seem to have appeared in The New Yorker until November, 1982, in a piece about shopping uptown: those who consider Columbus Avenue a “style ghetto,” readers are told, will be pleased to find that “gentrification has brought a host of often admirable and attractive new boutiques.”) The word already existed, though, coined in 1964 by the German-born British sociologist Ruth Glass.

As it happens, the term “Boerum Hill” was coined that same year. At the time, it named an audacious promise, or a bluff. The name was created by an author of nonfiction named Helen Buckler, who had moved to Dean Street in 1962. It was popularized by, among others, another author, a novelist and journalist named L. J. Davis. Anderson interviewed them both. In both cases, I knew their houses from the inside.

Like “Boerum Hill” and “gentrification,” I was born in 1964. In that year, my parents lived in an illegal loft on West Broadway, where my father had a painting studio. We came to Dean Street in 1968.

My father was led there by a fellow-painter, Patricia Stegman. She and her husband, Robert Snyder, had purchased a building on the same block as Helen Buckler, and a second on Pacific Street, to serve as her studio. Bob and Pat Snyder, as they were known locally, were, according to Anderson, “the first middle-class home buyers to follow Miss Buckler.” The Snyders showed my parents a house, and, when my parents borrowed a down payment of three thousand dollars from my grandmother in Queens, Bob Snyder acted as the broker.

Snyder had taken up a real-estate license not out of any desire for a career but in the cause of keeping crumbling houses from being demolished; Realtors had turned their backs on these buildings. Hundred-year-old marble mantelpieces weren’t then a consensus taste. Among people who could afford to choose, many preferred modern buildings, often in the suburbs. It was Buckler who had suggested to the couple that they begin showing the houses. As the conjurer of the neighborhood’s existence, Buckler was the Wizard of Oz. The Snyders were Dorothy and her companions—the Wizard’s emissaries.

The house I grew up in was across from the Snyders, and five doors down from Helen Buckler. With the exception of a handful of children on the block—my friends Karl Rusnak and Lynn and Aaron Nottage, and the Snyders’ son, Adam—these adults were the first people I knew outside my home. One Saturday morning when I was ten, old enough to walk alone as far as the post office on Atlantic Avenue, I was sent to Helen Buckler’s parlor to take up my first employment, as her gofer. In that capacity, I walked Miss Buckler’s many handwritten letters to the post office, emptied her garbage cans, and changed her cat’s litter. She must have been eighty by then.

Before Brooklyn, Buckler had lived in Manhattan, and worked as a secretary and editorial writer at The Nation, and as an advertising copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. In her parlor, I’d sneak looks at the papers on her roll-top writing desk, trying to understand a world of Wasp provenance and taste that was to me utterly mysterious. As a child, I collected postcards. She gave me a set of old deckle-edged black-and-white postcards of a riverside hamlet in Hampshire, England, called Buckler’s Hard, to which, I understood, she traced her family origins. She seemed vaguely famous to me, as a revered elder of the Brooklyn Friends Meeting; Quaker families from all over Brooklyn took turns, Sunday mornings, driving her to the Meeting House on Schermerhorn Street.

Buckler, known to her friends and correspondents as Bobbie, was tiny, opinionated, and odd. She was nearly blind. In the sixties, she’d suffered both a hip infection and a bad fall, which was recounted to me by my mother: slipping in her bathroom, Helen had grabbed at a towel rack, which had snapped in two and pierced her ribs as she fell. The result, after a long recovery, was a spinal deformation that required her to walk with a cane; I’m ashamed of the horror this inspired in me. I didn’t want to keep visiting Miss Buckler’s well-appointed parlor, let alone the dank basement level, where the cat box was kept. I wanted to be out on the street, running amok.

“Miss Buckler’s friends were shocked to hear that she had bought a house in North Gowanus,” Jervis Anderson wrote. “To them, living in such an area was unthinkable. Nor was her confidence strengthened when some of the older residents told her that except for the rooming-house speculators she was the first ‘outside person’ in years to buy a house in the community. She herself could not help noticing how shabby the area was, that there were ‘gaps in some of the blocks, like teeth missing in a face,’ that ‘there were a lot of noisy people’ on the streets, who ‘were always fighting.’ But she reminded herself that those conditions could be found in many other sections of New York.” Anderson focusses on Buckler’s zeal for architectural detail—above all, for fireplaces. “I was lucky to find all the original etched-glass doors intact,” she told him. “I found the round over-mantle mirror gathering dust in the cellar.” She went on, “Since fireplaces are my passion, the chimney was the first thing I did. And now I have four good working fireplaces.”

Buckler set about the formation of a neighborhood association. “She called a meeting in her parlor,” Anderson wrote, “attended by seven or eight representatives of the old home-owning families.” In Buckler’s search, aided by the Long Island Historical Society, for an appropriate name, she almost settled on Sycamore Hill, but was perhaps unsatisfied by something so vague. “Looking over the names of the old farmers,” Anderson continued, “Miss Buckler found herself drawn to the name Boerum, which was already the name of a street in the neighborhood. The most famous member of that family was Simon Boerum, who, historians say, would have been one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence if he had not died in 1775.”

Anderson’s appetite for historical research suffuses his article. This likely helped him gain the trust of the brownstoners, whose eagerness for tracing lineages, between their restoration of the houses and the early history of the area, bordered on the fanatic. In 1964, it was unlikely that Helen Buckler or her enablers at the Historical Society would have troubled to notice that Boerum was the name of a slaveholding family. In 1977, Anderson quotes Franklin Burdge, Simon Boerum’s biographer: “Brooklyn at that time was a pleasant agricultural town of about 700 white and 200 black inhabitants, the latter almost all slaves.” Characteristically, Anderson leaves the implication for his reader to unpack.

Anderson reports that an early response to Buckler’s effort was a story in the Brooklyn section of the World-Telegram & Sun on March 26, 1964, titled “Rescue Operation on ‘Boerum Hill.’ ” As the newspaper explains, Buckler, “who likes old brownstones with a fireplace in every room, is spearheading a campaign to win public acceptance of a new name, ‘Boerum Hill’ for a run-down section of downtown Brooklyn.”

The World-Telegram & Sun story includes a map. It represents the propositional neighborhood as a solid black rectangle plopped into Brooklyn’s established terrain, with boundaries that would startle anyone who knows the current definition of Boerum Hill. Buckler, in carving out an island of safety from the objectionable terrain on either side, laid claim to only six city blocks: the boundaries ran along Bergen and Pacific Streets, and between Smith and Nevins. Atlantic Avenue, with its mess of storefronts—then mostly empty—was too enmeshed, perhaps, in the difficulties of “downtown Brooklyn.” These confines required the sacrifice of State Street, north of Atlantic, despite its several blocks of splendid, rescue-ready brownstones.

Even stranger, in avoidance of Wyckoff Gardens, the housing projects facing Wyckoff Street, not all of Bergen Street had been included in Boerum Hill’s first perimeter. Were this map to have been taken literally, the owners on Bergen’s south face, looking across the street, would have been met with a new neighborhood that had left them behind. The same weirdness would have pertained on Pacific Street. Buckler’s earliest draft of Boerum Hill was, essentially, a box around three blocks of Dean Street.

A “block association” defines a material fact. If you live on the block, you may choose to ignore its activities, yet you still live there. A “neighborhood association” describes an assertion in free space—civic space, historical space, racial space. The Boerum Hill Association believed that the houses on certain blocks held a meaning and a value that had become endangered by neglect—neglect by city and bank officials, but also by many of the people who occupied them.

Two years later, when the new name found its way into the Times, an updated map expanded the boundaries. Now Boerum Hill touched Schermerhorn Street to the north and Wyckoff to the south. In the 1966 story—“Brooklyn Renewal Is an Uphill Fight”—the bankers refusing to grant mortgages are given a chance to defend themselves. One, Frederick L. Kriete, an assistant vice-president of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, called Boerum Hill an “odd case.” He puzzled over the brownstoners. “Generally, they’re cultivated, artistic people, with an appreciation for antiques and art—they’re a class all to themselves. I admire and appreciate their taste, but you wonder if the bank should get involved.”

Half a century later, the word “renewal” is widely understood as a euphemism for an intrinsically racist program of neighborhood demolition, favorable only to the financiers of freeways, shopping malls, and stadiums. The Times article quotes Bob Snyder, who recounts his difficulties with the banks. “They said we needed a sunken bathtub to get a loan,” Snyder said, “but we have a really wild Victorian bathtub.”

He added, “These are pretexts—they’re shielding the real reason, which is that the area is integrated.”

In 1967, a pamphlet appeared, limited to two hundred and forty copies, bearing the title “A History of Boerum Hill.” In seven pages of deliberately antique-looking Goudy Mediaeval font, it retails a saga beginning with the clearing of land north of Gowanus Cove by the Marechkawieck people, and “a minor land rush into the area” by Dutch tradesmen and farmers, including “Jacob Stoffelsen, the Dutch West India Company’s overseer of Negros.” Starting with colonial lore, the pamphlet centers Boerum Hill in the settling and development of Brooklyn, as if the name had always existed. It makes hasty work of the immediate past: “Although the neighborhood became steadily poorer in the years between the Second World War and 1962, in a strange way it was an architectural blessing.” It explains, “Boerum Hill was spared because of its poverty: simply, nobody could afford to ruin the fronts of their buildings. Following years of careful preservation, economic deterioration had the paradoxical effect of presenting to us, in the purest possible form, a perfectly preserved, mid-nineteenth-century neighborhood—a bit nibbled on the edges perhaps.”

L. J. Davis, the pamphlet’s author, bought a brownstone on Dean Street in 1965. A native of Idaho, Davis moved his young family to Brooklyn after completing a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, in a cohort that included the novelist Stephen Dixon and the poet Robert Pinsky. Davis wrote four novels—published between 1968 and 1974—comedies portraying confused young men drowning in the squalor and diversity of the city. He is as much a master of what is now called “cringe” as Larry David or Nathan Fielder. “Like a comic actor with the crucial willingness to make himself look ridiculous, Davis sacrifices our good opinion for the sake of the art,” Evan Hughes, the author of “Literary Brooklyn,” writes. “He makes you think hard about whether this L. J. Davis guy is a bigot, and that means thinking hard about what bigotry is.”

Of these novels, “A Meaningful Life” is the fiercest. (I wrote the introduction for a 2009 reissue by New York Review Books Classics.) Hughes describes it as “the most lacerating portrait of the folly and shame that gentrification brings with it everywhere it goes.” Davis’s subject is the brownstoners: “They are the most house-proud people you could ever hope to meet. To start with, most of them were doing their own renovation, so they became obsessed.”

Davis wrote from within what he ironized. A house-proud renovator himself, and a working journalist, Davis was not only Boerum Hill’s needling existentialist but its early popularizer, one with a stake in the outcome, since he’d sunk his family’s future—its financial and emotional well-being—into the precarious situation. When, in 1969, New York magazine’s cover trumpeted “Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative,” Pete Hamill’s title essay made an overture to the borough’s revival; in the same issue, in a piece on brownstones, Davis advertised Boerum Hill houses to space-hungry Manhattanites—still available but going fast.

Davis bragged to Anderson about how he’d researched the first occupant of his house: “His name was Malachi Murray, and he was a stonemason. Murray lost the house in the financial crash of 1873.” Davis’s knack for history must have gratified the other brownstoners, whose zeal for marble mantelpieces and gas-fitted street lamps needed justification. The neighborhood’s entrancing past cried out from under the layers of lead paint; the effort of individuals to beautify their homes gained an ethical dimension when viewed as a collective mission of curation. The word “Victorian” was everywhere, knitting the area’s white future to its white past. The populations that had defined the postwar decades could be seen as a kind of placeholder, until the eleventh-hour rescue. Brownstoners even posed in their houses dressed in Victorian costumes, such as Park Slope’s Joy and Paul Wilkes, on the cover of their 1973 book, “You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone.” Davis’s limited-edition 1967 pamphlet was reprinted in 1973 by Renaissance Properties—other brokers had by then stepped in, relieving Bob Snyder’s burden as a vigilante real-estate agent. If Helen Buckler was the first “author” of Boerum Hill, L. J. Davis was the second.

The scene had other novelist witnesses. Paula Fox moved to Dean Street in the late sixties, and got to know Davis. In an admiring 2009 review in The New York Review of Books, she compared him to Céline. Fox’s second novel, “Desperate Characters,” depicts their shared block in terms similar to Davis’s, as crime-ridden and garbage-strewn. When her book was filmed, partly in a brownstone on Pacific Street, in 1970, with Shirley MacLaine in the lead, Davis played a policeman investigating a break-in. The novel is celebrated, justly, for allegorizing urban fear as an existential condition: the risk of a break-in stands for an inchoate crisis in the life of a married couple who coexist in parallel silence. Yet readers on Dean Street at the time would have understood the risk literally. It was a commonplace, then, that every house would suffer regular break-ins until the ironwork defending the parlor windows and the basement entrance had been sufficiently strengthened, and the inviting fire escapes had been stripped away. And much early brownstoner energy was expended trying to rouse policemen to the task of pushing open-air prostitution and drug dealing beyond Helen Buckler’s boundary.

Rosellen Brown wasn’t a renovator, only a renter. She left Dean Street after three years, for New Hampshire, but her 1974 story collection, “Street Games,” depicts a cross-section of her block’s white, Hispanic, and Black inhabitants with precision and sympathy. In “Why I Quit the Gowanus Liberation Front,” Brown anatomizes the improbable blend of self-absolving idealisms that make the brownstoners, from this distance, so slippery to define. The scene is a neighborhood meeting, held in what Brown confirmed to me was a fictionalization of L. J. Davis’s parlor. “So I went to this meeting,” Brown writes. “It was in the house of a writer, a cat who gets his kicks out of having six working fireplaces.” She continues, “We had decided to have a multiethnic Street Fair complete with police barricades at both ends of the block to close it off even to the rest of George Street, thus indicating true inner-block solidarity (as opposed to intra-block, which comes later). We would find a cause to use the money for at our second meeting, when we could fight about how many people could relate to flower boxes, how many to gas lamps.”

L. J. Davis’s elder son, Jeremy, was one of my best friends during my high-school years. I spent many days and nights in their home. Their family included L.J.’s wife, a younger son, and two adopted daughters, who were Black.

I was fascinated with L.J., for his working writer’s office, for his collection of books and LPs so different from that of my parents, for his weird anecdotes and clench-jawed speaking style, full of invisible punctuation marks and eyebrow-arched pauses to allow implications to sink in. L.J. would, if we pleaded, cook us eggs Benedict, a dish I’d never heard of before. He took me to a matinée of “Sweeney Todd,” with Len Cariou—the first time I’d entered a Broadway auditorium. The only theatre I’d seen at that point had been enacted by giant puppets at antiwar protests.

By the time I was a visitor to L.J.’s home, the brownstoners had split into enemy camps. One was made up of the hippies and commune dwellers (my parents were both) who opposed what was then called displacement and vilified speculators. Despite that special irony which torments the community-minded who move into poor neighborhoods—our presence made the area whiter, and therefore, from the city’s point of view, more worthy of investment and policing—my parents’ camp regarded those, including L.J., who acquired buildings in addition to their own homes as culpable.

In the opposing camp were the brownstoners who opened their parlors to one another in yearly house tours. Proud of what they’d accomplished, they regarded the decrease in street crime and the increase in trees and property values as obvious goods, and the hippies as political dreamers. I suspect that my mother, an outspoken radical, came into direct conflict with L.J. She died before I befriended him.

It’s worth noting that local preservationists, in the sixties and early seventies, fought and won underdog battles against the forces of predatory urban renewal. Their defense of the houses equated, in the beginning, to protection for anyone living in the area, white or otherwise. “Boerum Hill Building Gets Temporary Lease on Life,” reads a headline in the April 20, 1967, edition of the Times: “A group of young property owners pushing baby carriages and carrying signs succeeded yesterday in temporarily preventing the city from razing a town house.” The story centers on the Snyders: “ ‘He’s a veteran picket. He helped save 434 State Street,’ said Mrs. Robert T. Snyder, pointing to her 13-month-old son Adam.” It goes on, “The structure, between Hoyt and Smith Streets, in a historic but deteriorated section of the borough, was to be torn down by helmeted wreckers sent by the Department of Real Estate. The building has been empty for two years and the Department of Buildings said it was a fire hazard and a gathering place for undesirables.”

A year earlier, the Times had written, “In a sense the battle of Boerum Hill epitomizes in miniature the nationwide tug-of-war between two principal schools of urban-renewal thought. Ranged on one side are those like the Brooklyn bankers, who envision renewal in the broad terms of clearance and complete rebuilding, even if it means sacrificing some sound old buildings. And on the other side are those, like Jane Jacobs, the author and caustic critic of many city planners, who see vitality even in slums.”

Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” is a name usually linked with that of her nemesis, New York City’s unelected, power-mad city planner Robert Moses. Though by this time he’d been impugned as a bully, and his power had waned, the Moses-inspired Cross-Brooklyn Expressway attracted passionate opposition by Brooklyn civic groups as late as 1969. The David and Goliath struggle felt immediate, not theoretical.

The moral calculus lent righteousness to the brownstoners’ preservationist stance. Yet a tone had crept in, that of an élitist cult. The brownstoners seemed oblivious to the intimations lurking in materials such as an announcement in the “Community Forum” column of The Phoenix, Boerum Hill’s new local paper, advertising an insurance company’s offering. “The Brownstone Package Policy was not designed to offer coverage to everybody with a bit of cracked brown sandstone on any old city house,” the policy’s originator explained. “We’re not really insuring houses, we’re insuring homeowners of brownstones. . . . We will not consider slumlords or other ‘high-risk’ people.”

I’ve tried to picture Jervis Anderson sitting patiently in the brownstoners’ parlors, recording their declarations. “This thing about renovating an old house sounds very esoteric,” Patricia Snyder told him. “But it often goes together with a commitment to living in an area that is mixed in every way.” She continued, “We have much more diversity than Cobble Hill or Brooklyn Heights. Everybody shouldn’t be the same.” L. J. Davis struck a similar note: “I myself don’t need to live around people who all look like me. If I wanted to do that, I would not have come to New York City. I would have stayed in Boise, Idaho, where everybody looks just like me.”

It had seemed unlikely at first, in the teeth of the banks’ opposition and the indifference of the city officials: the brownstoners’ triumph. Yet here it was. In bringing the cultural gravitas of The New Yorker into the scene, Anderson had become a third “author” of Boerum Hill—the one who could ratify both Helen Buckler’s dream and L. J. Davis’s historical sleuthing. His article ends with the words “Boerum Hill is not a rumor anymore. It exists.” Declaring the brownstoners’ victory, Anderson also highlighted the contradictions that gnawed at the liberal renovators’ good intentions. His article predicts the heel turn the renovators were at that moment taking, from underdogs to overdogs, from “defenders” to “displacers.”

I visited William Harris, the founder of Renaissance Properties, who moved to the neighborhood in 1970, and asked him to describe the impact of Anderson’s reporting at the time. “The article was supposed to be a two-part piece, you know,” Harris told me. “And they said he stretched it out so that he could have all the free dinners that came along with the reporting.”

I was disconcerted by the tartness of the gossip. A newcomer by the standards of Buckler or Davis, Harris made up for lost time by opening Renaissance Properties in 1973 and, with a partner, snapping up eleven buildings on Atlantic Avenue in one swoop, for three thousand dollars apiece. When I mentioned the homes lived in by children I’d known growing up, or the once vacant storefront now housing Rucola, a fashionable restaurant, Harris routinely interjected, “I brokered that house.”

Buckler died in 1988, Davis in 2011. Harris remains a keeper of the flame. In his eighties, he still displays a fervor for the zone’s deep provenances. Thrilled by the recent rediscovery of a Revolutionary-era stone-lined well beneath the pavement near his house—possibly a remnant of the Continental Army’s Fort Box, captured by Redcoats during the Battle of Brooklyn—Harris helped contrive a plaque commemorating the well on the exterior wall of a dry cleaner.

As to Anderson’s article, Harris shrugged. “I wasn’t a subscriber,” he said. “I didn’t draw a tremendous amount from it.” He was struck, however, by how little attention Anderson gave to the Kahnawake and Akwesasne tribal people still living in the neighborhood then: “The Indians were here all over the place, and they’re only mentioned fleetingly, in about a line and a half.” The union hall frequented by Mohawk ironworkers was above the post office where I took Helen Buckler’s letters. At one point, their numbers were large enough that a Presbyterian church on Pacific Street gave services in their language. Hank’s Saloon, a late, lamented hipster bar, was during my childhood a Mohawk dive called the Doray Tavern.

Yet the emphasis on the Native Americans seems a substitution. The neighborhood’s Mohawk residents, made famous in a 1949 New Yorker piece by Joseph Mitchell, were scant by the late seventies. I recall widows in basement apartments. The local families whose children filled the public schools I attended, and the kids I played with on the street, weren’t Native American—they were Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Black. The urgency in the commemoration of various histories—architectural Victorianism, nineteenth-century middle-class urbanites, Washington’s soldiers, Mohawk ironworkers—corresponds precisely to the need to leave others unmentioned.

Mary Jane Melish, another Dean Street neighbor, was once a famous Communist. She and her husband, the Reverend William Howard Melish, were prominent in the American Party’s outreach to the Soviet Union. In the nineteen-fifties, a McCarthyist purge cost Melish his post at Brooklyn Heights’ Church of the Holy Trinity (now known as St. Ann & the Holy Trinity). In 1963, the Reverend Melish travelled to Ghana to deliver the memorial address at W. E. B. Du Bois’s funeral; several years earlier, when the American Friends Service Committee arranged for a teen-age Angela Davis to move from Birmingham, Alabama, to New York City to attend high school, she was placed in the Melishes’ home. “From the first moment I had heard about them, and the sacrifices they had made for the progressive movement, I had a great respect for both of them,” Davis writes in her autobiography. “Their suffering had simply made them stronger and more determined.”

Mary Jane Melish directed a youth center on the corner of Atlantic and Bond, part of the nineteenth-century settlement-house system that still survives across the five boroughs. Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins stopped by, while working on “West Side Story,” to meet the street gangs that coexisted inside. I spent a lot of time at the center myself, since my father taught a woodworking class there. I barely recall Howard Melish, but the cherubic, bright-eyed Mary Jane was a regular presence in my mother’s circle, revered by our leftist friends for reasons I couldn’t have grasped at the time.

Jervis Anderson would have known of the Melishes’ radicalism, but he underplays it in his piece, even as he lets Mary Jane write his conclusion for him. She told Anderson, “The attitude of some of the renovators toward the poorer people—those who live in the run-down apartments or over storefronts—is very negative. The renovators are resented by these people, who feel that the community belongs to them as much as it belongs to the newcomers. They don’t like being looked down upon, they don’t like being excluded, and they don’t like being pushed out.” She goes on, “I believe that houses are things to be used. They are not museums. And it seems to me that to a lot of the renovators houses come first and people come later.”

Mary Jane Melish is gone, as is Robert Snyder, but Patricia Stegman, the painter who married and later divorced Snyder, and who directed her son’s stroller into the path of a wrecking crew, still lives on Dean Street. Her brownstone, the one with the “wild Victorian bathtub,” holds a special aura. The house, which had been in the possession of only one family, was bequeathed to the Salvation Army, which kept it sealed until the Snyders opted to buy it, in 1963. This represented a kind of immaculate conception. “Every doorknob is original,” Stegman told me this year. Not only had the property been conveyed intact, with details like front and back shutters, an ironwork patio, and a back-yard cistern, but it had required no eviction to take occupancy.

At ninety-three, Stegman no longer paints. The last exhibition listed on her Web site is the Gowanus Open Studios in 2016; it must be strange, for the first-generation brownstoners, to consider the voguishness of the place-name Gowanus, which the Boerum Hill Association was once so eager to distance itself from. I sat with Stegman and her son, Adam, in the same time-stopped parlor where, in 1970, she consented to pose, in Victorian dress, for a feature in the Times Magazine. Like Anderson, I brought a tape recorder, though interviewing her felt odd. Once, while babysitting me, Stegman had had to rush me to the emergency room with a spiking fever.

I handed her a copy of the 1977 article.

“They described me as tall, attractive, and mild-tempered. They don’t know me.”

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” Adam said.

Stegman remains angry at the bankers who redlined the neighborhood: “We went to millions of banks. They all said, ‘We’ve given a lot of mortgages in that neighborhood and we’re not going to give any more, because the neighborhood is no good now.’ ” As she paged through my tattered copy of the magazine, Anderson’s words rekindled wonder in Stegman, at the distance Dean Street has travelled, from rooming houses, demolition, and garbage-piled streets. The Snyders were central to the story: Bob’s real-estate license, the protests, the coverage they drew from the Times and elsewhere. “I feel I am responsible for making Brooklyn, not just Boerum Hill, a chic place to live,” she said. It seemed only a slight exaggeration.

The ethical line that Pat Stegman and Bob Snyder drew was firm: “People offered us many houses to buy. I would be rich if I had bought them. One man owned a whole flock of rooming houses. He offered them to me very cheaply. I said, ‘I don’t want to be a landlord of rooming houses.’ We would have had to evict or manage them.”

She added, “We had a chance to buy a house in Carroll Gardens. But I found the people there were bigoted. They said, ‘Oh, we’d be so thrilled to show to you and your husband, because we’d never sell to a Black person.’ Well, I had friends who were Black, and so I said, ‘They wouldn’t be comfortable coming here to visit me, right?’ ”

In 1993, I was shelving books at Moe’s, in Berkeley, where I worked as a clerk—at the time, Dean Street was far from my thoughts—when a blue-jacketed hardcover came into my hands: “Daniel Hale Williams: Negro Surgeon.” The author’s name was Helen Buckler. It took me an instant to recognize her in the photo on the back, above a citation from the National Council of Negro Women. “The surprises in the story were many,” Buckler wrote in the introduction. “It turned out to bear little resemblance to the usual Negro story. There are no slave cabins, no cotton fields, no city slums, no lynchings—only the slow crucifixion of the spirit.”

In March, I explored Helen Buckler’s papers, which are stored at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Among get-well cards and newspaper clippings on the founding of Boerum Hill are drafts of articles on racial equality, with titles like “Little Known Facts About Negroes” and “The Race Question: A Woman’s Problem.” In the latter, in which Buckler tackles the spectre of miscegenation panic head on, she writes, “Willingly or not, woman was made the crux of the matter. Whatever the economic and political forces surging and battling underneath the surface, the banner unfurled to lead the crusaders always carried the slogan: Defend White Womanhood!” Beneath dated language, her thinking is lucid.

The founders of Boerum Hill all avowed a desire to live in an integrated neighborhood. Many had participated in the cause of civil rights—even William Harris, who bought and sold so many houses. In his twenties, in Virginia, when Prince Edward County shut down its public schools to avoid forced integration, he’d volunteered as a teacher in a makeshift integrated school. How had these crusaders—against the “little boxes” of suburbia, against eminent domain, against blandly uniform lives—ended up on the wrong side of Mary Jane Melish’s formula of “houses come first and people come later”? Had some intoxicant in the solvent they’d used to strip paint from the old moldings led them astray? Or was there an original sin in Buckler’s drawing of a boundary around Boerum Hill in the first place?

By the time of Jervis Anderson’s piece, L. J. Davis had stopped writing boosterish articles. Brownstone advocacy was redundant. The craze was official. Davis’s fiction had never sold much—the manuscript of a fifth novel went into a drawer—and he refashioned himself as an investigative reporter, specializing in financial scandal. A 1979 Harper’s cover story, “The Money Vanishes,” dissected the Carter Administration official Bert Lance; Davis’s 1982 book, “Bad Money,” exposed the credit crisis.

L.J. was by then also done opening his parlor, either to the house tours or to meetings of the Gowanus Liberation Front. He’d become a curmudgeon, our local Mencken or Vonnegut. In his columns in The Phoenix, alongside sunny coverage of the annual Atlantic Antic street fair and the openings of new restaurants, L.J. fulminated about Erica Jong, H. P. Lovecraft, and the degeneration of written English. “Descartes was a lucky dog,” one column begins, explaining that “he did not live on a bus stop” and “was therefore spared the small agonies of citizenship at its rawest: drunken softball teams celebrating on his stoop at two in the morning, beer cans in his shrubbery.” Another starts, “I sometimes wonder if I’m a safe person for me to know.” Elsewhere, he refers to himself as “the Darth Vader of Dean Street.”

L.J.’s neighbors would have detected, in this arch tone, that he felt cornered by leftist voices. A 1980 column, written in tribute to Helen Buckler, resorts to bitter sarcasm. “It looks so easy,” he writes. “You take a declining neighborhood, move into it, fix up the premises, and encourage other, like-minded souls to do the same. Hey presto, a rejuvenated neighborhood or a gentrified one, take your pick.” The piece spirals into a rant: “Nor was it, as certain ageing hippies would have us believe, an act of dark and sinister cunning.” He continues, “There was still no neighborhood here, just a lot of desperate poor people crammed into structures built to contain a tenth of their number—and at night, the sound of children being beaten unmercifully. This was the earthly paradise we are now called upon to admire by people who, in those days, wouldn’t have lived here on a bet.” Then it turns horrible: “It is hard to see what could have been done, short of some sort of concentration camp.” Elsewhere, L.J. makes shrouded reference to “the Indian reservation.” He means the Gowanus Houses projects, the setting, fifteen years later, of Spike Lee’s “Clockers.”

Had L.J.—to use the phrase he would have chosen himself—“gone mad”? For me, he is an emblem of the complex intellect who, feeling a critique of his privilege, jumps calamitously the wrong way.

L.J. Davis wrecked his journalistic credibility with a single pratfall. In 1994, The New Republic sent him on assignment to Little Rock, Arkansas, to sleuth around the financial paper trail known as Whitewater. L.J. mistook an alcoholic blackout episode in his hotel room for a possible assault. The Wall Street Journal reported that pages had been torn from his research notebook. L.J. later said that they had only ripped—and the hotel bartender observed that he’d had perhaps six Martinis before ascending to his room—but it was too late. The Republican conspiracy machine relished the suggestion that a journalist researching the Clintons had been attacked, and read the incident into the Congressional Record; L.J. was ahead of his time yet again. Still, he wrote two books afterward: one on cable-television moguls, and a passion project on the history of electrification. In his final years, he was a garrulous daytime drinker. His neighbors would sometimes cross the street to avoid being subject to his monologues. I did this myself.

Jervis Anderson died in 1999 or 2000, sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. His body was found early in January, when neighbors noticed mail piling up. He’d retired from The New Yorker the year before, after thirty years, publishing little in the magazine toward the end. Known once for his formality and dignity, he’d become a figure of isolation, and there were rumors of solitary drinking. Unlike Joseph Mitchell, he didn’t gain a legend for his reluctance. He showed up until he didn’t, and then he died at home.

I’ve spent the past four years wishing I could speak with Anderson, wishing I could cajole him into telling me what he thought about the white people on Dean Street. More recently, I’ve sought out those who knew him, hoping they’d make him more legible. Hendrik Hertzberg’s Talk of the Town obituary describes Anderson as a “product of British colonialism and West Indian anticolonialism, leavened by Harlem and the Upper West Side.” I spoke with Anne Nelson, who became good friends with Anderson during her time in The New Yorker’s typing pool, before a career as an author and playwright. “Jervis didn’t express the anger of ‘I’m living with the descendants of my slaveowners,’ ” she told me. “He didn’t share that attitude. He was analyzing, he was reporting. His writing was about advancing African American civil rights, but doing so systematically.” Discussing his first years as a writer in New York, she said, “This could have put him in conflict with people who might assume he would be an ally. Here is Jervis, the stately Jamaican wearing a suit—out of step, and out of time.” In his 1966 autobiographical essay, which was published in the Teachers College Record, Anderson himself develops this image: “We had been colonials for a long time and had grown to be as chauvinistic about English taste and English tradition as the English themselves. The involuntary reverence that most West Indians feel for the English sensibility and the English way of life must—even now that the Empire has been liquidated—stand as one of the sweeter and more deadly triumphs of imperialism.” The tone, both wistful and remorseless, is that of a writer who allows the reader—and history—to be the judge. Perhaps it also accounts for Anderson’s capacity to occupy the role of The New Yorker’s sole Black staff writer for so long. His instantiation of a psychic position somewhere between the dominant culture and the point of view of the oppressed was his tool and his method, until—I’m speculating—this method collapsed on him.

At some stage, it occurred to me that I might be searching in the wrong place, or asking of Anderson something he shouldn’t have to deliver. If what I craved was to hear from a Black person who’d spent time in L. J. Davis’s house, I needed only to search out one of L.J.’s daughters.

When I spoke with Tina, the younger of the two, it was the first time in forty-odd years. We compared notes on the experience of growing up in a time and place where a vision was being propagated of integration as a mission accomplished. The lives of the children playing on Dean Street were supposed to be a victory lap. Tina called it “a bubble”—a thing destined to burst, a dream deferred.

“When I stepped out of that bubble, I saw things,” she said, explaining what happened when she started attending school in Manhattan. “It was scary. Things went haywire when I started meeting people from other neighborhoods. People realized I wasn’t a part of them, I wasn’t from their world. I’d get picked on. I started realizing I would have to act more Black. Like, what does that mean? Why can’t I do this right?”

I was a little surprised that the reckoning had waited until Tina left the neighborhood. I pointed out that the housing projects were just two blocks away.

Tina said simply, “I wasn’t allowed to go over there.”

She continued, “I love my dad. He was a strong man, who stood up for all of us. And who laughed.” Then she clarified his prohibition against her walking in the direction of the projects: “Dad was classist. If you had a different economic standard, he was, like, ‘You’re a Davis, and you don’t go over there.’ With me and my sister, it was: ‘You need to find a different class of people.’ ”

Tina didn’t need to explain further. There was a time when I’d had friends in the Wyckoff Gardens towers—grade-school kids, Black and Chinese and Puerto Rican and Dominican—whose birthday parties I attended, or whom I unself-consciously followed home. Then, as if a memo went out sometime in the mid-seventies, most of the children from Dean Street stopped going to the projects to play, if we ever had. We tried to stay in the bubble, to make integration work on our blocks alone. It couldn’t, of course.

The white people who arrived in that part of Brooklyn in the sixties and seventies saw divisions among themselves. In one home lived speculators willing to manage tenants—and to evict them. In another, Maoists lived communally and worked to overthrow the state. Elsewhere, everything in between: artists, eccentrics, families. The long lens of time blurs these distinctions, making us see the brownstoners instead as collectively deluded about their culpability. This remains the case even as historians of civic life have been slowly picking apart the notion that what we call “gentrification” is simple or predictable in its effects. (Some, like Bo McMillan, a researcher for the Redress Movement, suggest that the term has itself gradually become an obscuring fiction.) Jervis Anderson’s gift was to portray the brownstoners as I recall them: people trying, and largely failing, to grasp their place in history in real time. You and I may be doing the same now.

Not everyone who moved onto those blocks ran a youth center, like Mary Jane Melish, or taught carpentry there, like my father (who also gave art lessons at the Brooklyn House of Detention). Some merely wished to live in a place that was diverse and yet neither crime-ridden nor scheduled for demolition. They might ask now: was that wish a crime? I’ve come to see this quandary as historically specific. What if theirs was a generation who believed that their desire for a just society had been addressed by the civil-rights movement—in which many had played some part—more fully than was the case? For those trying to inhabit Helen Buckler’s dream, the two enormous housing projects were a truth hidden in plain sight. Boerum Hill, that invention, was a gated community bounded only by a concept. The concept didn’t stop anyone walking down the street, except when it did.

The projects sat a mere five hundred feet from Tina’s childhood home, as from mine. Yet the situation within them was, at best, not our concern. At worst, it was a daily emergency we were prohibited from giving a name. What happened there happened elsewhere. For, according to Miss Buckler’s boundary, it was elsewhere. The boundary was a recipe for cognitive dissonance, for a preëmptive turning aside, in favor of more solvable matters, like how to restore a ceiling’s crumbling plaster scrollwork. It wasn’t only Tina Davis, or L. J. Davis, who couldn’t square the circle, couldn’t do the moral or emotional math. Helen Buckler didn’t intend to drive us all mad, in drawing an invisible line down Bergen Street, but she did so nonetheless. ♦

the pinefox, Thursday, 14 September 2023 09:53 (two months ago) link

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