Thane Tierney

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For a collection titled Modern Poetry, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Diane Seuss spends a fair amount of time communing with the past.

In the title poem, named after a textbook she studied in college, she reminisces about how she and her roommate referred to William Carlos Williams as “Billy C. Billygoat,” and how she managed to fake her way to an A on a paper about Wallace Stevens despite “having no clue / what he meant by ‘The deer and the dachshund are one.’” That fake-it-till-you-make-it approach has apparently served her well, because she has not only become a highly regarded poet, but also gone on to a two-decade-plus career teaching poetry to other young people with impostor syndrome.

While the spirit of the avowedly modern ‘60s poet Frank O’Hara hovered over her last collection, 2021’s frank: sonnets, which won her the Pulitzer, her guiding star for this outing is a poet who is decidedly not modern: John Keats. In fact, the final poem of the volume, “Romantic Poet,” is at once an homage to Keats and a comment on the contemporary tension between loving an artist’s work and having mixed feelings—or outright disdain—for the artist. After being told the many reasons she would not have liked the unnamed “him” at the poem’s outset, she rejoins with a simple “But the nightingale, I said.”

Ah, the nightingale, the bird that sings. Seuss’ song is not the A-B-A-B rhyme scheme that was pounded into our middle school heads. It’s more subtle, and evinces itself when read out loud. “Rhyme,” Seuss said at 2023’s Great Lakes Poetry Festival, “can just do a thing that nothing else can do; it appeals to our bodies, not our minds.”

In “Romantic Poetry,” Seuss writes, “I was twenty three when I sold off / Modern Poetry and sailed to Italy, seeking / Romantic poetry . . . and found my way to Rome, / and Keats’s death room. / His deathbed, a facsimile.” Feel it, in your body, as you read it? Twenty three, Italy, poetry, facsimile. It’s all there for the taking. To co-opt the famed slogan from the unsung McCann-Erickson ad agency poet who created it for milk, “Modern Poetry: it does a body good.”

In Modern Poetry, Diane Seuss reminisces on faking it through poetry classes in college and on the complicated legacy of John Keats.
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At its heart, Ferdia Lennon’s debut novel, Glorious Exploits, is something of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show romp . . . with a few minor, and mind-bending, exceptions. The stars are a pair of foul-mouthed unemployed potters from Syracuse, Sicily, the year is 412 BC and the acting troupe isn’t a bunch of neighborhood kids; it’s composed of Athenian prisoners of war left in a quarry to starve.

The tale’s narrator, Lampo, is a garrulous scoundrel always on the lookout for spare coin. One day, after tossing scraps of food to the Athenian prisoners in exchange for their reciting passages from Euripides, Lampo’s more taciturn friend Gelon presents him with a plan: reinvent themselves as directors, recruit the prisoners as a cast, tart up the prison quarry as their amphitheater and present two of Euripides’ plays, Medea and Trojan Women, back to back.

What could possibly go wrong? Apart, of course, from the fact that the potential audience of Syracusans hates the defeated Athenians, and that the production is to be mounted by two unemployed potters with no background in theater. Nonetheless, the show must go on; the hapless duo happens upon a mysterious benefactor who offers funds for the production, sets are built, costumes are sewn and various potentially hazardous wheels are set in motion.

At the outset of rehearsals, co-director Gelon gives his captive cast a little pep talk. He reminisces about how the Athenian tragedy Oedipus Rex sparked his fondness for the theater: “I don’t hate you. How could I? Even though I know you came to make us slaves. I can’t hate you. I believe any city that gave us those plays has something worth saving.”

If politics makes strange bedfellows, then Glorious Exploits reveals that art makes even stranger ones, as the captors and the captives pause their hostilities for the sake of a greater—if imperfect—good. Lennon’s unique voice sparkles with a darkly comic undertone in this quirkily uplifting commentary on war, art and the surprisingly resilient spirit of humanity.

Ferdia Lennon’s unique voice sparkles with a darkly comic undertone in his debut novel, Glorious Exploits, a quirkily uplifting commentary on war, art and the surprisingly resilient spirit of humanity.
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The Old Testament book of Ezekiel states that “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.” In theory, while wealth may be passed along from generation to generation, debts—even those of the karmic nature—aren’t.

Try telling that to any of the Sonoro clan, the family at the center of Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ dual-timeline magical realist tour de force, The Bullet Swallower.

Beginning with patriarch Alferez Antonio in the 1800s, the Sonoros have committed all manner of sins in the name of ambition, from running a gold mine with slave labor to robbing a train at the turn of the 20th century. When the latter goes sideways, Antonio Sonoro is shot by the Texas Rangers and left for dead in the desert. His henchman brother is killed, but Antonio survives and swears a blood oath for revenge—rechristening himself as El Tragabalas, the Bullet Swallower.

A century later, in 1964, Jaime Sonoro is Mexico’s number one box-office draw, a much-beloved movie star and performer known as El Gallo (The Rooster). While relaxing at home after a grueling tour, he’s visited by someone whom he believes to be a fan, bearing a strange gift: an ancient volume entitled The Ignominious History of the Sonoro Family from Antiquity to the Present Day.

Ping-ponging back and forth across the decades, Gonzalez James constructs a dynastic legacy that is shrouded in mystery and carries more than a hint of danger. When Jaime tries to pry some of the family’s more recent history out of his tight-lipped father, the old man replies, “Did you ever think that the reason I never said anything about them is because it’s too painful?” And when a shadowy figure named Remedio inserts himself unexpectedly into Jaime’s household, the story takes on an element of the supernatural.

All this would be remarkable enough, but it’s made even more so by the fact that The Bullet Swallower is based, albeit loosely, on Gonzalez James’ own family history. As she puts it in the author’s note, “Everything in this book is true except for the stuff I made up.” So while the son—or in this case the great-granddaughter—may not bear the iniquity of the father, it seems she does wind up bearing witness to it.

Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ dual-timeline magical realist tour de force presents the dynastic legacy of the Sonoro family—one that is shrouded in mystery and carries more than a hint of danger.
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Suppose, just for a moment, that the European colonizers of America hadn’t brought a whole host of diseases that wiped out a majority of the Indigenous population, and that Natives had thrived, rather than been decimated. What would Prohibition-era America have looked like, politically, economically and culturally?

In the alt-universe police procedural mystery Cahokia Jazz, Francis Spufford takes this premise and runs with it. It’s as if Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle met up with Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers in a 1922 speakeasy. 

Apart from the setting—the state of Cahokia, carved out of eastern Missouri and surrounding states—the story starts off in familiar, if somewhat gruesome, territory. Two detectives, Joe Barrow and Phineas Drummond, are investigating a murder in which the victim has had his heart cut out. On his face, the word bashli (from Anopa, the city’s Native lingua franca, meaning hit or cut) has been scrawled in blood. 

At first, the murder seems to have possibly been some sort of Aztec ritual sacrifice, but as the investigation progresses, it’s discovered that the deceased had links to the Ku Klux Klan, who very much want to replace Cahokia’s Native power structure with one of their own. 

The book’s debt to the likes of Raymond Chandler is evident throughout, as Detective Barrow steps into the hallowed role of the untarnished, unvarnished romantic who makes his way doggedly down these mean streets. And on occasion, Spufford’s language equals that of noir masters of yore: “He had opened the box at the city’s heart, and found it contained a secret, and a dark one, a grim sacrifice, but not a snake or a scorpion, not anything beyond the reach of the hope that every morning upholds hearts and cities. And now he was free to go. The city was done with him.”

There’s a bit of a learning curve for the reader, as unfamiliar language and culture weave through the intricately plotted narrative, but Spufford propels the Jazz Age action to a climax that is at once unanticipated and seemingly inevitable.

Visit an alternate America where European colonization never took place in this intricately plotted police procedural from Francis Spufford.
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Who gets to forgive, who gets to forget and who decides when someone has paid their debt? These questions, like life itself, are messy and open to speculation, particularly in Claire Oshetsky’s latest novel, Poor Deer. Her charmingly weird 2021 debut, Chouette, won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. If there is such a thing as a sophomore slump, Oshetsky has deftly sidestepped it, producing a tale that both enchants and perplexes.

Margaret Murphy, a 4-year-old child in a Northeastern mill town, is inadvertently responsible for the death of her best friend, Agnes, when an invented game, “Awake, Oh Princess,” goes terribly wrong. Margaret is dimly aware of her misdeed but is too young to recognize its complete horror.

Much like the Under Toad in John Irving’s 1978 classic The World According to Garp, a misheard adult phrase morphs into an ominous presence in the active mind of the young child. This time it’s the Poor Deer, a cloven-hoofed apparition with yellow nubs for teeth who visits Margaret as accuser, judge and jury.

At the book’s outset, Margaret (now a 16-year-old) and Poor Deer are locked in a battle of wills. She has promised to finally tell herself, and the reader, the truth, and the story alternates between the present day and the fateful events surrounding Agnes’ death. Yet despite her intentions, Margaret emerges as a classic unreliable narrator. Time and again, the fog of memory occludes any attempt at a journalistic account of past events, and readers are left with the task of winnowing the wheat from the chaff.

Oshetsky deftly pulls aside the curtain to show us Margaret’s struggle to reconcile her emotional, subjective history with the persistent, objective one that keeps intruding on her psyche. Ultimately, even if the details are somewhat suspect, emotional honesty may earn Margaret the right to the forgiveness she so desperately craves, and convince Poor Deer to trot back into the subconscious forest from which she sprang.

Claire Oshetsky deftly sidesteps the sophomore slump with Poor Deer, an enchanting, perplexing tale of a young girl haunted by a cloven-hoofed apparition.
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Happy Singh Soni is not, well, happy: He is longing for more. And, given his condition at the outset of Celina Baljeet Basra’s debut novel, why wouldn’t he be? His home, a Punjabi farming village that is being steadily encroached upon by an expanding theme park, is no place for a young man with ambition—of which, make no mistake, Happy has a bountiful platter.

Happy’s primary objective is to travel to Europe and become something befitting his expansive and flighty imagination: perhaps a movie star or a playwright. Constantly updating his résumé, he envisions his future with “a lustrous, luxurious bathroom made entirely of Makrana marble.” This makes him an easy mark for those only too eager to shepherd the dreamer to the Europe of his imagination . . . for a price.

In a very timely manner, Basra makes a potent point about how undocumented workers are frequently abused both economically and physically. After a harrowing journey, Happy finds himself in Italy, working at a radish farm as an undocumented immigrant. His proximity to the Italian film studio Cinecitta makes his goal of stardom feel tantalizingly close, yet it remains every bit as remote as it was in India. He puts on a brave face even while the gap between his dreams and his daily life becomes a virtually unbridgeable chasm.

Although Happy starts out at a leisurely pace, this is just a matter of Basra taking the time to build Happy’s complex character layer upon layer, encouraging the reader to root for her quixotic protagonist. As his life, somewhat predictably, falls short of his lofty ambitions, she manages to keep Happy true to his ideals, rather than having him succumb to cynicism or bitterness.

The book’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning Happy’s story will speak to anyone with a heart and a dream.

Happy’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning this story will speak to anyone with a heart and a dream.
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“A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are. This particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please. Once you’ve got women and a border, a story can write itself.”

And with this set of lines, author Geetanjali Shree drops us into the deep waters of her expansive stream-of-consciousness novel, Tomb of Sand. With echoes of James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende and Leo Tolstoy, it seems almost inevitable that this novel was destined to garner the lit-crit clique’s affection, and indeed it has already racked up the prestigious International Booker Prize, the first novel written in any Indian language to do so.

This is a novel that rewards patience and leisurely reading; after all, its main protagonist, 80-year-old Ma, doesn’t even get out of bed for the first quarter of the book. When she does get up, she goes on walkabout, leaving her son Bade’s home. Ultimately, after 13 hours—or days or weeks, according to the shape-shifting narrator—Ma decides to live with her journalist daughter, Beti, instead. Free from the overbearing nature of Bade’s oversight, Ma decides to undertake a trip to her native Pakistan (which, when she was born, was part of India). 

At its heart, Tomb of Sand is a tale of borders—of politics, gender, religion, behavior and relationships—and one woman’s resolute unwillingness to accept them as a restriction. After Ma delivers a long soliloquy on the nature of borders to a Pakistani official, she concludes with some simple advice that is at once timely and transcendent: “Do not accept the border. Do not break yourself into bits with the border. There’s only us. If we don’t accept, this boundary won’t stay.”

Special notice should be given here to Shree’s American translator, Daisy Rockwell. While some critics have found her adherence to the original Hindi excessive—a point of view I am not capable of evaluating, since I don’t speak Hindi—she has an excellent ear for capturing the rhythm of Indian speech, as rendered here in Ma’s internal and external dialogue about getting up:

No, now I won’t get up: who was playing with the fear and death of that phrase? These mechanical words became magical, and Ma kept repeating them, but they were becoming something else, or already had.

An expression of true desire or the result of aimless play?

No, no, I won’t get up. Noooooo, I won’t rise nowwww. Nooo rising nyooww. Nyooo riiise nyoooo. Now rise new. Now, I’ll rise anew.

Tomb of Sand is not a simple, linear book. It requires attention, and unless you’re fluent in Hindi, you can expect to be Googling some passages. But if you can strap yourself in, you’ll find yourself taken for an enchanting ride.

Tomb of Sand is a tale of borders—of politics, gender, religion, behavior and relationships—and one woman’s resolute unwillingness to accept them as a restriction.
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“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. If you’re looking for quiet desperation in modern-day America, you’d be hard-pressed for a better place to find it than the “dubiously named” Oasis Mobile Estates in Riverside County, California, the setting of Asale Angel-Ajani’s debut novel, A Country You Can Leave

Russian-born single mom Yevgenia Borislava and her Afro-Cuban daughter, Lara, have alighted on this repository of broken dreams, the latest in a string of temporary addresses the two have occupied for all of Lara’s life. At 16, Lara finds herself on the awkward cusp of adulthood, a situation that’s difficult enough without her strained relationship with Yevgenia and her yearning for a long-absent father whom she knows only through her mother’s possibly unreliable stories.

On top of that, Lara’s economic situation is brought into high relief due to a zoning mistake that lands her in a high school intended for the nearby gated community that, economically speaking, might as well be on another planet. At school, Lara surrounds herself with a small diverse group that includes a gay Black aspiring poet named Charles and a compulsive white shoplifter named Julie, both of whom find Yevgenia more fascinating—or at least less embarrassing—than Lara does. 

For most of the novel, readers are treated to the passive-aggressive back-and-forth between a mother and daughter who haven’t quite learned a healthy way to express their devotion to one another, until a violent altercation with an outsider becomes the crucible in which their relationship will either be forged or splinter irrevocably. 

Angel-Ajani’s unflinching portrait of this hypernuclear family is captivating and complex, with a richly drawn supporting cast and occasional arch humor that leavens the intensely emotional backdrop. A Country You Can Leave gives voice to a group of star-crossed characters struggling to transcend Thoreau’s trap.

Asale Angel-Ajani’s unflinching portrait of a hypernuclear family is captivating and complex, with a richly drawn supporting cast and occasional arch humor that leavens the intensely emotional backdrop.
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Back in the 1980s, it was all “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” These days, not so much, with dystopian stories like The Hunger Games doing a much better job to capture the zeitgeist. Speaking of capturing, that’s one enterprise in which the United States still excels; about one out of every five incarcerated people worldwide occupy a jail cell here in America.

In his first novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah mashes up “Orange Is the New Black,” The Running Man, Gladiator and mixed martial arts into a brutal prognostication of what could be next year’s worst “reality” show. It works like this: Prisoners whose sentences exceed 25 years are offered shots at freedom in exchange for three-year tours of duty as televised, weapon-wielding warriors. Much like in professional wrestling, there are storylines and factions and fan favorites, but “smackdown” in this ring means that only one “athlete” gets to leave alive.

Competing for-profit prison corporations provide teams called “chains” whose “links” vie against one another, either singly or in doubles matches. To ramp up the drama, individual links in a chain may occasionally turn on one another—many of them are murderers, after all—so the likelihood of living through the three-year tour is vanishingly small. 

The story centers on a pair of warriors, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, who are members of the same chain, occasional doubles partners and lovers. While they are both successful at their current day job—being killing machines—Adjei-Brenyah has imbued them with a notable degree of tenderness. They’re aware that most of the links are going to be “freed” via slaughter in the ring, and their immediate survival requires them to focus their violence on their opponents rather than toward each other. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. 

The subtext here punches through like Anderson “The Spider” Silva delivering a knockout blow: The incarceration-industrial complex, hyped up on the steroid of private capital, encourages systematic racism and a rejection of any possibility of rehabilitation. So in Adjei-Brenyah’s brave new world, he recalls yet another notion perfectly articulated during the ’80s: “The Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah mashes up “Orange Is the New Black,” The Running Man, Gladiator and mixed martial arts into a brutal prognostication of what could be next year’s worst “reality” show.
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Remember when you were a little kid, and adults seemed to be imbued with powers you couldn’t even imagine? Robby Andersen felt that way when, in 1947, his uncle came to visit with glorious, gory stories of using his flamethrower against the enemy in World War II’s Pacific theater. 

Fast forward about a quarter century, and Robby is illustrating underground “comix” inspired by his uncle’s wartime experiences, starring a sort of super-antihero called Firefall. The comic, published during the thick of the Vietnam War, garners a mixed reaction, as American military personnel were not universally revered. After a flurry of sales and hate letters in response to his creation, Robby and the rest of the world move on to other things.

In the present day, movie director Bill Johnson is casting about for his next film, and when he envisions an adaptation of the union of Robby’s superheroes, Firefall and Knightshade, it’s a marriage made in, well, Lone Butte, California. The fictional Lone Butte is the kind of small town that has come to symbolize the “real America,” a trope that Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks used to great effect in his 1996 directorial and screenwriting debut, That Thing You Do! Much like that film follows the arc of a pop band from college talent-show winners to chart-topping sensation, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece pulls its audience behind the velvet rope and into the production offices and soundstages where magic happens. 

As an army of “talent,” craftspeople and other workers descends on the hamlet of Lone Butte, readers are offered an unparalleled glimpse into the hurry-up-and-wait nature of filmmaking. Hanks lavishes praise on the largely unsung heroes who keep the machine running, from the gaffers to the makeup artists to the myriad of problem-solvers whose names you miss as you exit the theater. In fact, the story is almost as much about the metamorphosis of young Ynez Gonzalez-Cruz from cabbie to associate producer as it is about the main characters’ journeys.

Hanks’ familiarity with the filmmaking process and keen eye for detail make his first novel (with comic book panels illustrated by R. Sikoryak) a joy for anyone who loves the art of cinema. Hanks retains a childlike sense of wonder even as he moves among adults whose powers, like movies themselves, are just illusions that we will ourselves to believe.

Tom Hanks’ familiarity with the filmmaking process and keen eye for detail make this novel a joy for anyone who loves the art of cinema.
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Selam Asmelash Gebre Egziabher emerges, enraged, from a troubled womb into a troubled place at a troubled time. It seems she is destined to have, as author Mihret Sibhat’s title suggests, The History of a Difficult Child.

Born in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, Selam enters a grim world of insecurities and grievances, from political to economic to fundamental. During the 17-year civil war that follows the overthrow of Haile Selassie, an ever-shifting succession of governmental overlords keep the country fearful and in distress. Selam’s father, Asmelash, and mother, Degitu, have faltered economically; the government has repossessed their flour mill, coffee-processing plant and much of their land, redistributing it in a misguided fit of socialism. Asmelash and Degitu are also struggling emotionally and physically, he with his alcoholism, she with her persistent—and incorrectly diagnosed—uterine condition.

When we first meet Selam, she is preliterate, but Sibhat gives us access to the child’s thought processes, including her belief that she has a leopard inside her. For all of her ferocity, though, Selam is insightful and quite often ruefully amusing, noting at one point that “I have learned from life and from my father that the fall of one tyranny is the rise of another.”

After her mother embraces Protestantism, isolating their family from both the Orthodox Christian villagers and the local Marxist revolutionaries, Selam tentatively follows along, only to discover that the religion fails to answer many of her questions. After her favorite brother, himself a missionary, is killed in a freak accident, she “[wishes] to disappear from life somehow. Or to locate God, arrest him, and liberate everyone from His madness.”  

And yet, she perseveres. Fortunes change, and change again, and while she remains to the end of the book a difficult child, Selam learns to embrace the world’s inconsistencies. She is a little broken but unbowed. Her outlook on life is that of an old soul in a young body, well adapted for the capriciousness of her circumstances: “I used to want to reduce the number of people I love in order to protect my heart from destruction. I don’t think the devastation of living will ever stop. I might as well increase my enjoyment of love.”

Sibhat’s vivid narrative is captivating, particularly for its emotional depth, even as some of the events she depicts are shocking. She has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career. 

Mihret Sibhat has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career.
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It’s a strange and fraught time, that space between the end of high school and the rest of your life. You’re caught on the border between childhood and maturity, between parental protection and personal agency. In Small Worlds, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s follow-up to his award-winning debut novel, Open Water, musician Stephen is right on the cusp of adulthood, but he is also straddling two cultures: London, his home; and Ghana, from which his family emigrated.

At the novel’s outset, Stephen has feelings for longtime gal pal Del, but he can’t find the words to express his love. He dances around his emotions, quite literally. Whether in a spontaneous two-step with his brother, swaying in the pews at church or feeling the rhythm in Peckham dance halls blaring Rick James, J Dilla and D’Angelo, Stephen sees dancing as an escape, a safety net and salvation. 

His father doesn’t exactly share the sentiment and is concerned that his son is adrift. Pops encourages Stephen to drop the idea of pursuing a music degree and study business instead, which Stephen does, to little success. And when he drops out of college and returns home, a rift opens between father and prodigal son that seems irreparable. Harsh words are exchanged, and Stephen departs for a new phase of his life.

Over the next few years, Stephen takes tentative steps toward being his own man, explores his Ghanaian roots and discovers the joys of preparing and sharing food with others. He bonds with a friend who has suffered a beat-down at the hands of a racist gang and muses on what it means to be a Black immigrant in modern-day England. He tentatively expresses his love for Del and extends an olive branch to his father.

The book’s action, such that there is, unfolds slowly, and when we take our leave of Stephen at the story’s end, he’s still a work in progress. But even small worlds take time to build, and  Nelson leaves us with the impression that this one will be bountiful—with a dance floor at its center.

Whether swaying in the pews at church or feeling the rhythm in Peckham dance halls, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s young protagonist sees dancing as an escape, a safety net and salvation.
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Somewhere between its founding as Breukelen and the contemporary rise of area code 718 as a fashion statement, there existed a Brooklyn worthy of myth. Its eponymous bridge is one of New York City’s most recognized icons. The Dodgers came from there (and left). And its Bugs Bunny accent—well, fuggeddaboudit! The borough has lodged itself in the American psyche, and you didn’t have to grow up bouncing your Spaldeen off the stoop of a ramshackle brownstone to be keenly aware of Brooklyn’s cultural impact.

Jonathan Lethem, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Motherless Brooklyn, has returned to the scene for Brooklyn Crime Novel. Don’t be deceived by its generic title. Going back nearly three decades to his debut noir-influenced novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, Lethem has never approached the beat looking for just the facts.

The action begins in the 1970s among a loosely-knit community living on Dean Street in a neighborhood that is now known as Boerum Hill. Lethem himself grew up in the area in the early ‘70s, so it’s not much of a surprise that kids are the primary cast. For most of the novel, a single “crime” is re-enacted with the regularity of a cuckoo clock chime: a mini-mugging known as “the dance,” in which the losing participant is forced to pay a toll—or “lend” money—to the winner. This happens so frequently that parents routinely send their kids out with “mugging money” and advise them to stash their real bankroll in a shoe for safety.

But other, larger crimes are going on as well. Sometimes the kids get caught up in them, and sometimes—as with the gentrification, or rather, demolition of the neighborhood by real estate speculators—they only affect the youngsters tangentially.

Lethem unwinds his story through a series of small vignettes: imperfect Polaroids of an imperfect past that slowly coalesce into a photomosaic montage of memoir-meets-myth. You can smell the urban petrichor of a fire hydrant’s spray falling onto a blistering asphalt street; you can taste that first drop of cheesy grease dripping from a folded slice; you can feel the hot shame of a kid being bullied daily on his way to becoming a man. While Brooklyn Crime Novel may not cohere stylistically to the more hard-boiled Gotham underworld of an Ed McBain or Andrew Vachss novel, it’s by no means a chalk outline.

Jonathan Lethem unwinds his story through small vignettes: You can smell the urban petrichor of a fire hydrant’s spray on a blistering asphalt street and you can taste that first drop of cheesy grease dripping from a folded slice.

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