Written by on February 17, 2014

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem

I’ve missed the last few books by Jonathan Lethem, but remember liking some of his earlier ones, especially Motherless Brooklyn, an unforgettable novel about a detective with Tourette syndrome. Dissident Gardens is also set in a New York borough (Queens this time). The characters are several generations of a family deeply involved in the American Communist Party.

Starting in the mid-1950s, and ranging backwards and forwards from there, the story centers on Rose Zimmer and her only child Miriam. Rose is far from a likable character: her contempt and anger for family and friends alike drive most everyone away, and we can see why. Here, her husband Albert has been asked to speak at a 4th of July picnic at the Jersey Homesteads, a cooperative farming community:

9780385534932_p0_v1_s260x420He introduced Albert Zimmer, special guest from New York City, “an important organizer and speaker.” Out here, importance could be claimed for Albert, Rose supposed , in a one-eyed-man-in-the-land-of-the-blind sort of way. Perhaps that was the draw. How long after he relocated here the residue of such borrowed importance would attach to him was another question. This place being where importance, it seemed to Rose, came to die.

The story shifts to other members of the family. Rose’s daughter Miriam, while an ideologue like her mother, is still a much more sympathetic character, and it’s a relief when we get a break from Rose to pick up her part of the story line. And, while the story centers around these two women and their significant others, the book is full of unique and fully formed characters: the married black cop with whome Rose has a long-term affair; his son Cicero, a bitter college professor; Miriam’s husband Tommy Gogan, originally part of a kitschy Irish band with his two brothers, and later a leftist songwriter; Rose’s chess hustler/coin expert cousin Lenny… and even, once Rose is old and alone and losing her marbles, the ghost of Archie Bunker.

There’s enough here to sink your teeth into for quite a while. I found this book an especially enjoyable read after seeing the movie Inside Llewyn Davis which overlaps some in time, place, and subject matter.

author photo: Tobias Everke/Rex Features

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