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'Brooklyn Crime Novel' explores relationships among the borough's cultures and races


A woman screams from her apartment. A kid introduces a new friend to the risky art of shoplifting. A car burns on the street, and no one sees anything. A baseball shatters a windshield. A group of kids steals from another group of kids. A young woman learns to hide from shady strangers at the bodega. Cops show up and they don't care. Bookstores hold secrets. Businesses open, stick around for a few generations, and then vanish. Families come and go. Gentrification changes everything.

Decades pass in the blink of an eye — although in the case of Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn Crime Novel, "decades pass with the flip of a page" would be much more accurate.

Brooklyn Crime Novel is much more than a novel. There are some recurring characters — the screaming woman, a kid named C., The Wheeze, and places like Schermerhorn and Flatbush, to name a few — but the narrative is a nonlinear mosaic; an amalgamation of vignettes that come together to create a beautiful, gritty, and impeccably researched portrait of Brooklyn, its history, and its people. Almost all the book's 124 chapters move in time. Some capture a single year — like 1978, which appears a lot — while others capture an era like 1964-1978 or 193?-2000. The constant shifts in time, atmosphere, and characters allow Lethem to bring Brooklyn to the page in a way that seems almost complete, as if he somehow managed to cram the entire borough and everything about it into the novel's 384 pages.

Brooklyn Crime Novel is a crime novel because there's crime in it, but it's also a novel that explores relationships between the cultures and races that make up Brooklyn. It is also a novel about parenthood, friendship, what it means to be a local, growing up, and politics. In fact, trying to break down everything Lethem injected into this narrative would be impossible. The important thing is the end result; a kaleidoscopic, dazzling (hi)story that is at once wonderfully engaging, informative, and one of the most complete and honest love letters ever written to Brooklyn: "If you want to be remembered, protest in Manhattan. Only the dead know Brooklyn."

Lethem does many things well here. Two that immediately jump out and demand attention are the amount of research that went into the novel and the accuracy of the diversity presented in the story. In terms of the research, there is no bibliography at the end of the novel, but Lethem discusses politics, buildings, and gentrification in ways that show he spent a lot of time digging deep into Brooklyn's history and the way it has changed, especially in last century. Likewise, Brooklyn, much like all of New York, has always been a melting pot, and Lethem ensures that everyone — Puerto Rican, Black, white, Asian, Italian, Jewish — is present in these pages the way they are present in the streets of Brooklyn.

While Brooklyn Crime Novel can be called a crime novel because of the illegal activities depicted in its pages, the rich complexity of its vignettes and the variety of themes Lethem tackles force readers to wonder what the real crime is. For example, nothing good comes from gentrification, and the way it changes neighborhoods — not to mention the awful things those who benefit from it do in order to make it happen faster — emerges as a crime here. Also, the passage of time is the culprit of many things, and as older people walk around and don't say hello to those they used to play with when they were children, time seems to have stolen something from everyone, turning it into a criminal.

Keeping readers glued to the page when you don't have a single narrative they can easily follow is a hard task, but Lethem does it here brilliantly. Brooklyn Crime Novel is full of history and details, but it's also a fast read with great rhythm and a ton of wit. And it's not afraid to obliterate the fourth wall. In this book, Lethem talks to readers all the time. As a result, this isn't just a novel; it is a story someone is telling you, and that someone has a humorous tone, a lot of information, and is often as surprised or curious as the reader.

Lethem has always been willing to try new things, and in Brooklyn Crime Novel, everything he tried worked out well. Brooklyn Crime Novel is a superb book that shows an award-winning author at the top of his powers. There are countless novels about New York. Some are great and some just are, but this one is one of the best novels about Brooklyn ever written, and that makes it one of Lethem's best outings so far.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabino Iglesias
[Copyright 2024 NPR]