Originally created 09/22/03

Author Jonathan Lethem has come home



NEW YORK -- Dean Street in Brooklyn is one of those sweet, shaded neighborhoods that makes you nostalgic for a childhood you didn't even have. Author Jonathan Lethem, who really did grow up here, declares it the most beautiful street in New York City.

"First of all, it's the homes," he says on a recent afternoon stroll, pointing to the compact brick row houses that line the block. "And the sidewalks. They're slate sidewalks. No one makes them like that anymore."

Lethem is not an old man clinging to memories of egg creams and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is just 39, with a teen-ager's narrow build and the hipster's dark-rimmed glasses. The Dodgers left for Los Angeles several years before he was born.

But he has been around long enough to see his old neighborhood change entirely and to miss what has been lost. Powerless in real life to bring back what he calls the "lost Eden" of childhood, he has instead resurrected it, with a few notable twists, in fiction.

His books include the award-winning "Motherless Brooklyn" and a highly anticipated new novel, "The Fortress of Solitude," the story of a white kid and a black kid who grow up together in Brooklyn. Dylan Ebdus is the son of a reclusive painter and filmmaker. Mingus Rude is the son of a former soul singer and, for Dylan, comprises "a world, an exploding bomb of possibilities."

Lethem tells a fanciful story complete with comic book heroes and liner notes for a harmony group, the Distinctions, that exists only in the author's mind. But he also documents very real changes in street life, from the dramas of race and class in the 1970s and 1980s to the oncoming homogenization of the present.

"Dean Street is now a very upscale street, a really elegant street," says Lethem, who lives a few blocks away in a one-bedroom apartment. "For better of worse, it's a triumph of gentrification. It was a very fitful place when I was young. It was a meeting ground for a lot of different kinds of cultures, and now it's pretty uniformly white."

Born in Brooklyn and raised in one those brick row houses, Lethem is the son of avant-garde artist Richard Brown Lethem, of whom the author has said, "I learned to think by watching my father paint." While Dylan's father spends much of his time alone, Lethem's father usually had company.

"It was a semi-communal household," Lethem says. "My father's painting studio was in some ways the opposite of a monklike cell. He painted live, nude models, so there were models coming in and out. There were fellow artists in his studio constantly and some of them were living in the house at times. It sort of boiled with human energy.

"What was so striking to me was that as the child of an idealistic movement in the '60s ... my parents had instilled me with the idea that the battle had been won, absolutely and forever. And so it was left to the neighborhood to educate me in the rougher reality of disenfranchisement."

Lethem recalls being a "really omnivorous" reader as a kid, with a child's passion for action heroes and an aesthete's fascination with literary boundaries. He wondered why a science fiction thriller had to be categorized apart from a literary novel. His own work became a kind of answer.

"He's always exploding genre conventions, and combining different genres," says his friend, Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

A graduate of the elite, Vermont-based Bennington College, Lethem began as an author of fantasy and science fiction. "Girl in Landscape" follows a teen-ager's mythic adventures in a post-apocalyptic universe. In "She Climbed Across the Table," a professor loses his physicist girlfriend to a futuristic machine named Lack.

Mainstream recognition came in 1999 with "Motherless Brooklyn," winner of the National Book Critics Circle prize. It was both an unclassifiable book - a literary detective story featuring a narrator with Tourette's syndrome - and a return to native soil.

"When I was starting out, I had a tremendous interest in form and in concept. And that overran any desire to do anything emotional and personal," he says. "Eventually, I was able to use what I learned about form and bring in more personal material."

On the surface, there's little in common between the creator of the faraway Planet of the Archbuilders in "Girl in Landscape" and the memorializer of earthbound Brooklyn in "Fortress of Solitude." But all of his work tracks the romantic's quest for what once was: a girl, a family, youth, the world itself.

Loss has been an old companion of Lethem's, as intimate as the death of his mother - she died of cancer when he was a teenager - and as public as Brooklyn itself, this former city that joined Manhattan in 1898 but never truly became one with its richer neighbor.

"Queens," the author says with a laugh about the neighboring New York City borough, "was only ever a suburb of Manhattan. With Brooklyn there's that loss, the lack, the void in the center of it all, the sense that 'we wuz robbed.'

"You sense it in the City Hall and in the downtown - what was taken from us. ... Brooklyn has this proud, sulky self-image of the place that was once so much greater and no one understands. You feel a sense of exclusion and identity."

He enjoys a love affair with Brooklyn, and like other such affairs, he also requires distance. In his 20s, he moved to Berkeley, Calif., and stayed away for 10 years, even as his old flame beckoned.

"I think I needed a whopping dose of exile," he explains. "I would come back and see my friends and go back to the old neighborhood and I was manifestly restless with it. It took me some time to harvest an acceptable psychological distance."

In researching "Fortress of Solitude," Lethem would duly walk around Dean Street and elsewhere, but he also wrote parts of the book in Berlin and at the Yaddo writer's retreat in upstate New York. He calls it a cycle of "pulling away and yearning back."

His recent novels have marked a steady path home. But for his next book, which he hasn't started, the author is thinking about the West Coast, the Bay Area. His story will be less about parents and children than about relationships among adults.

At least on paper, he's pulling away.