Dissident Gardens

By Jonathan Lethem

(Doubleday, $27.95, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Jonathan Lethem, New York-born and Bennington College-educated, is one of the highly talented trio of authors I think of as The Three Jonathans: Franzen, Safran Foer and Lethem, whose incisive and insightful fiction is at the apex of contemporary American literature.

Lethem’s novels include “Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” a literary blockbuster that won the designation Novel of the Year from Esquire as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award and Salon Book Award, and also the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger. His work also includes two story collections, a novella and an essay collection, and you may have read his contributions to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s and more. He lives in Brooklyn….where else?

What is this book about?

Communists.  But not the scary spies of innumerable espionage thrillers or the sad, wan, material-goods-deprived Russkies or the evil minions of Stalin. No, these are the robust, home-grown, outspoken, opinionated, often Jewish but not exclusively so, passionate, in-your-face radicals that have been part of the American fabric from the intellectual brio of the 1930s to the Civil Rights Movement to just-yesterday’s Occupy Wall Street protestors.

Lethem gives us this valuable lesson in American political history in a saga of one family, chiefly through two indomitable women: Rose Zimmer, known as the “Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens,” and her equally tough-minded daughter, Miriam, and through  the generation that follows. They’ve got far more, shall we say, fierce testicular fortitude than the men in their lives, who include an uppity German Jew, a chess hustler, a black cop and his brilliant son and an Irish folksinger and his son he has with Miriam. Full of vivid, often annoying, yet compelling people, this may be Lethem’s best yet.

Why you’ll like it:

Lethem’s not just telling a story: he’s giving us a valuable perspective on American history, a way to understand a period that’s still a little too close for many to have fully understood it. And he does it by creating characters that go beyond memorable to leaping-off-the-page powerful. He accomplishes this with deep research. mordant humor and breathlessly evocative writing: comparisons to Philip Roth are already mounting.  This is an exhaustive (and perhaps for some, exhausting) journey to the recent past. Hold on to your hats and dive in.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about maternal isolation and filial resentment. The book begins with the case of Rose Zimmer, in Queens, New York, who was officially ousted from the party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop. Rose’s daughter, Miriam, is a teenager at the time, and she soon discovers the pull of Greenwich Village bohemians. Rose’s and Miriam’s stories are interwoven, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, uncovering Rose’s doomed relationships, as well as Miriam’s fiery determination to escape her mother’s rage. Miriam’s son, Sergius, also comes into the story—as a child and an adult, juxtaposing three generations—along with Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s black cop boyfriend, an unexpected member of the family by proxy and the most interesting character of the book by far. Cicero formed an unexpected relationship with the bitter, Jewish woman as a kid, and, in turn, became a beneficiary of her intellect. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem’s writing, as always, packs a witty punch. The epoch each character inhabits is artfully etched and the book is as illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations and the boroughs of New York. Having scaled the literary peaks of Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and the Chronic City (2009) of Manhattan, one of America’s premier novelists sets his sights on Queens, though the title of the opening section, “Boroughphobia,” suggests that this is a place to escape–or at least for a daughter to escape from her mother. The mother is Jewish, strong-willed, contrarian Rose Zimmer, a Communist booted from the cell because of her relationship with a black policeman. (“Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black but it wasn’t. It was between cop and Commie.”) Her husband had returned to Germany as a suspected spy, leaving Rose to raise Miriam, a red-diaper baby transformed by the ’60s, a “Bolshevik of the five senses” who became irresistibly sexy, “not for her bodily self but for her appetite: she devoured the ripe fruit of the world.” The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth, yet the book, like the end of the 20th century, takes a darker turn, as hippie naïveté leads to more dangerous activism, illusions shatter, and old age takes its toll. … The novel’s social realism finds ’60s folk fixtures such as Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis mixing with Miriam and her eventual husband, Tommy Grogan, a musician who moves from a traditional Irish family trio to protest songs, a career eclipsed (like so many others) by the rise of Bob Dylan. But it also features Archie Bunker (if only in Rose’s mind) … In “a city gone berserk,” pretty much every character struggles with identity, destiny and family. …”

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Lethem extends his stylistically diverse, loosely aligned, deeply inquiring saga of New York City (Motherless Brooklyn, 1999; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003; Chronic City, 2009) with a richly saturated, multigenerational novel about a fractured family of dissidents headquartered in Queens. It’s 1955, and witty, voluble, passionate Rose Zimmer—an Eastern European Jew, worshipper of Abraham Lincoln, and street-patrolling leftist—has outraged her communist comrades by having an affair with Douglas Lookins, an African American policeman. She, in turn, is wrathful when she catches Miriam, her smart and gutsy15-year-old daughter, in bed with a college student. Lethem circles among his tempestuous narrators and darts back and forth in time, landing on historical hot spots as he traces the paths of radical Rose; Douglas’ brainy, skeptical son, Cicero, who becomes an audacious college professor; intrepid Miriam, who marries a folksinger desperately searching for authenticity, and their woebegone son, Sergius, who is led astray by a sexy Occupier. Lethem is breathtaking in this torrent of potent voices, searing ironies, pop-culture allusions, and tragicomic complexities. He shreds the folk scene, eviscerates quiz shows, pays bizarre tribute to Archie Bunker, and offers unusual perspectives on societal debacles and tragic injustices. A righteous, stupendously involving novel about the personal toll of failed political movements and the perplexing obstacles to doing good.”

“Lethem is as ambitious as Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth and as stinging as Bob Dylan…”Dissident Gardens” shows Lethem in full possession of his powers as a novelist, as he smoothly segues between historical periods and internal worlds…Erudite, beautifully written, wise, compassionate, heartbreaking and pretty much devoid of nostalgia,” says the Los Angeles Times.

Says Janet Maslin in The New York Times, “… In “Dissident Gardens,” a novel jampacked with the human energy of a crowded subway car, Jonathan Lethem attempts a daunting feat: turning three generations’ worth of American leftists into a tragicomic tale of devolution. He has couched this as a family story and written it so that someone’s hot breath is always in the reader’s face…It’s a big book set in small spaces—kitchen, classroom, folky nightclub—that keep its battles personal at all times…[a] wild, logorrheic, hilarious and diabolical novel. …”

“In the past two decades, Jonathan Lethem has written, co-authored or edited 23 books, picking up a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant along the way. He shows no signs of flagging in his rich ninth novel, “Dissident Gardens,” an evocative, deeply sympathetic work about three generations of New Yorkers caught up in personal and global politics…It’s also no small thing that this famously Brooklynite author has brought to life some of the neglected borough of Queens — and so much life, so artfully, persuasively created. ,,,” says Bloomberg.com.

When is it available?

You can borrow this book now from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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