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Steven Boykey Sidley

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Book review - Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Book review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Some many years ago we had a New York visitor from the literary world (who later won a Pulitzer Prize – long story). I asked her who was hot, who were the upcoming writers. Among a few others she pegged Jonathan Lethem, claiming that he would become the best writer in America. Now, with more than 18 fiction and non-fiction books under his belt, a slew of literary awards and a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, Lethem has lived up to that casual soothsay.

Dissident Gardens is my first Lethem novel. Someone smart said (I forget who, I am seaside-addled) that we should read half as many books, but we should read each one twice. I have only done that a only few times in my Life (Catch-22, My Traitor’s Heart, Ragtime, Portnoy’s Complaint). This novel absolutely demands a second reading.

At the heart of this story is family of mad and maddening Jews (before my co-religionists take offense to the phrase, they are described as such by the narrator with such affection that it borders on dazzled adulation). Communists, activists, hippies, geniuses, combatants. Failures as parents and guardians and friends. Deluded and impassioned and impractical and self-flagellating and guilt-ridden and wildly volatile, three generations of this family beat each other into misery and distress, save only for hope and unshakeable faith in themselves and their causes.

The book takes place mostly in New Jersey, close to New York. The matriarch is one Rose Zimmer, her story beginning in the 1930s, a character of such volume and heart and exasperation that she remained clanging in my head long after I had closed the book. Am American communist of boundless and cacophonous zeal, she chases off all who love her – her daughter Miriam, her husband (who flees for East Germany after the war to escape her harangues), her sisters, her communist co-conspirators. I cannot remember a character this robust in American literature for years, maybe decades – a sizzling delight (in a sort of perverse way – the reader shrieks with laughter at the many painful embers of her combustive personality).

Then there is her daughter Miriam, who eschews Communism for hippy activism -  no less infuriating than her nearly estranged mother, possessed of an explosive personality so magnetic and riveting and warped that I ached for her self-inflicted wounds and endless mistakes and doomed journey.

The cast of  many-dimensional characters in this book continues to grow shambolically and without shame – Rose’s hapless cousin looking for purpose and love finding only despair, the bickering communists of the 50s, a black academic sampling the bacchanalian homosexual candy store of pre-AIDS New York, an Irish folk singer whose career has been exterminated by the juggernaut of Dylan, an orphaned Jewish grandchild saved and nurtured by an isolationist Christian religious group, a senior black cop (a rarity in the 60s), submerged by his ailing wife and failing child and finding redemption in a cross racial and politically inadmissible love affair.

Race, child rearing, hippiedom, AIDS, homosexuality, academia, Quakerdom, Jewish secularism, Irish folk music, Nicaragua, East German revisionism, the entire sweep and tragedy of the American communist movement – this book just bursting with energies and histories whose strands tangle chaotically with each other in a great and kaleidoscopic narrative, and whose expression is found in some of the most startling language I have read in ages – where you are continually pole-axed by utterly unique pairings of adjectives and nouns and adverbs and verbs and phrases and sentences of rare and abiding beauty.

Lest I sound too slavish, there are criticisms. Sometimes that language is so, well, virtuosic, that you say – Oh, for god’s sake stop it, now you’re just showing off. Sometimes the ambition of the huge cast and the many sub-stories threaten to overwhelm the main narrative.

But even so.

Watch for the Pulitzers next year, my money is here.

And read it twice.