Jonathan Lethem is best known for his inventive use of genre and elegiac musings on his native borough. In his 1999 breakthrough novel Motherless Brooklyn, its narrator Lionel Essrog’s Tourette syndrome propelled a fast-moving neo-noir with an explosive glossolalia. The title nodded to Essrog’s orphaned status, and his struggle with loss and displacement was embellished with obsessively inventive linguistic flourishes. Lethem’s 2003 bestseller The Fortress of Solitude was also set in Brooklyn, a complex bildungsroman with richly layered references to music, comic books and street art. Twenty years on, and Lethem’s return to his home turf sees the language stripped down and determinedly prosaic. “Keep the light, let alone the honeyed light, from your eyes,” an anonymous narrator insists early on. “Just the facts, man – no painterly effects. We’re here to enumerate crimes.”
Brooklyn Crime Novel is a fictionalised memoir channelled through a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes that jump around in time, a fractured and granular narrative with a plurality of vocal tics. In what is more a sociological inquiry than a forensic one, the author interrogates what happened to the neighbourhood he grew up in, and we overhear the collective splutter of the street. The crimes and misdemeanours investigated become plural too, and uncertain, but a single plaintiff emerges: Brooklyn itself. In a time of staggering gentrification a whole community has become orphaned, a victim of displacement and dispossession.
The whodunnit here is something of a rhetorical question (the obvious answer being that property is theft). The modus operandi of the generation of white liberals who moved into the blighted borough from the late 60s onwards are critically documented. The motives of the “Brownstoners” seemed positive enough: reversing the inner-city “white flight” trend, renovating condemned houses, sending their kids to local schools, dreaming of an integrated communality. Where did it all go wrong? “Is premature gentrification a crime?” the narrator wonders.
Reflecting on his own coming-of-age in this changing world, Lethem examines the awkward coexistence of the children in this interzone. The uneasy racial dynamics of the street are defined as the “dance”, and the well-meaning parents become part of its choreography, teaching their kids to hide any money they might need in a sock or a shoe, but to have some extra change that might be found as a decoy. This is the “mugging money” to be genially extracted by kids from the housing projects. A series of tales called The Funny Muggings recount the sad absurdity of being preyed upon in such affable fashion by one’s own schoolmates. In another episode, set in 1978, two 14-year-old boys use a hacksaw to cut their mugging money into pieces, simply to bewilder their assailants.
This crowded cast of Brooklyn Crime Story rarely get named credit. Many are simply designated “white boys” or even “no name white boys”. A Black kid who hangs out with a group of white kids is allowed a single letter signifier. “What does it take to get a name around here anyway?” the author quips. “Call him C.” Otherwise characters are designated by characteristics: the Screamer, the Spoiled Boy, the Slipper, the Wheeze. And the identity of the narrator becomes a game of hide-and-seek as we try to work out where they fit among multiple storylines. “Me? I’m just a character in this novel,” it’s admitted near the end of the book, “the one who happens to be writing it.”
As the stories start to coalesce, the “crimes” become harder to define, let alone solve. We enter a mirror maze of recursion, learning that the Wheeze, a secondhand bookseller and bar room psychogeographer, has been contributing to the narrative with “enigmas from yellowed newspapers, materials dug out of old basements and storerooms”. In a scene set in 2019, when asked about the Funny Muggings, he tells the now adult narrator: “So you were a bullied child. We all were. Don’t make a furshlugginer religion of it, like that writer.” The Wheeze goes on to rail against a “whiteboy Brooklyn novelist” whose bestselling work helped to make the borough so trendy. The Novelist, though clearly identifiable as Lethem himself, is unnamed and described in the third person. The crime now becomes a metafictional one, as the narrator becomes a character in search of an author, confronting the Novelist at a book reading with the accusation: “You gentrified gentrification.”
Given his genre-bending proclivities, it’s no surprise that Lethem makes a bold grab at the fashionable mode of autofiction. Adding some deadpan sparkle to a form that can often be flat and drab, he comes up with something truly compelling. Anonymising his characters, giving them nicknames or unattributed pronouns, is perhaps witness protection for old friends. But in refusing to fictionalise his compatriots he gives up his own authority as a “voice” for them, and simply allows a neighbourhood to speak for itself. There’s real sincerity here and I felt engaged to the end, carried along by an honest, melancholy humour. This is a heartfelt testimony of Brooklyn, where the urge for discretion outweighs the temptations of style. “I am in their company,” Lethem says of the locals. “I love them too much to want to say any more.”
• Brooklyn Crime Novel by Jonathan Lethem is published by Atlantic (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.