Brooklyn Crime Novel by Jonathan Lethem - review by Joseph Brooker

Joseph Brooker

Down & Out in Boerum Hill

Brooklyn Crime Novel


Atlantic Books 384pp £20

Gowanus is an area in the New York borough of Brooklyn, centred on a notoriously polluted industrial canal. In the 1960s, its northern segment was renamed Boerum Hill in an attempt to give it respectability. A new demographic was moving in. Amid the existing population of black and Puerto Rican residents, white incomers renovated old brownstone houses, planted trees and started community associations. Many of these newcomers were idealistic: hippies and radicals inspired by Jane Jacobs’s campaign for habitable cities, seeking to enact racial integration on the streets and sending their children to ethnically mixed schools. The long-term effects of the process have left some uneasy. With Brooklyn property prices going through the gabled roof and the borough becoming synonymous with hipsters, the dread word ‘gentrification’ is readily applied.

Born in 1964, Jonathan Lethem is a child of this process. He became an unofficial laureate of Boerum Hill with his rich bildungsroman The Fortress of Solitude (2003), which traced street life in the 1970s and its aftermath in the 1990s. Over the course of a prolific career, Lethem has lived in and written about places far from Brooklyn. Brooklyn Crime Novel represents a startling return to home turf.

The novel comprises 124 chapters, some under a page long. Most chapters provide a vignette of Brooklyn life in the 1970s; others, organised in an unpredictable order, show characters’ progress through subsequent decades, almost to the present. The result is compulsive. A fearsome bully from the streets of 1976

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