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.