DISSIDENT GARDENS. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday. 364 pages. $27.95.
Jonathan Lethem describes himself artistically as a Quaker, "believing every creature eligible to commune face to face with the light." His new book, "Dissident Gardens," is a sprawling, multigenerational family novel about collective and individual leanings toward the light: of utopian ideals, of artistic integrity, of academic prescience.
Lethem's own backstory is to the point here, his obsessions very much on show. He grew up the child of hippie Bohemian Brownstoners in 1970s Brooklyn. From his earliest writings, Lethem has been an outspoken fan of the vernacular voice, whether it speaks in literature, film, comics, music or politics. In "Dissident Gardens," he treats the people's dream voices and visions tenderly, if ironically. Over 50 years and many pages, the losses mount. Each generation dreams big in its own way, enacting its own version of trying and failing.
The first of the title's dissident gardens is Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, "official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs." In the opening scene, Lethem drops down in Rose Zimmer's kitchen on the 1955 evening when a "gang of five" has come to evict her from the Communist Party. Her crime? Sleeping with Douglas Lookins, a Black cop. As Lethem writes, "Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black, but it wasn't. It was between cop and Commie."
Lethem's hectic prose and twitchy chronology are often effective mediums for a cyclic story of doomed utopias and broken allegiances.
Rose, the "Red Queen," is enraged by her faithless party but not surprised. Her "refusenik mind" will not occupy a dream Moscow. As she tells one of her betrayers: "My feet when they walk touch the sidewalks of Queens; they don't float above."
The rub, it turns out, is how to coordinate head-in-the-heavens idealism with feet-on-the-ground pragmatism. Lethem carries the pattern into the next generation with Miriam, "the Maven of Macdougal Street," Rose's daughter and the true inheritor of her fierce hopes. While Rose enacts her utopian efforts among party apparatchiks, Rose's milieu is the 1960s Village folk scene (a "bedlam of fraudulence").
Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis make appearances, and everyone talks about Dylan. Miriam has taken to "running with the uncircumcised," chief among them Irish-born folk singer Tommy Gogan, who becomes her husband. Miriam is relentless, like her mother. Not satisfied with the corny albums Tommy makes with his brothers (Clancy Brothers sound-alikes), she nudges him to make a solo statement album, "an allegory for the individual being caught in grinding gears of the American machine." Cue the end of Tommy Gogan's career.
There's something slightly cartoonish about Lethem's rendering of the Red Fifties or the Folk Sixties. But when he takes us into the Occupy movement with Miriam's son, Sergius, or to a critical theory seminar with Douglas Lookins's son, Cicero, Lethem lets vanity and pathos blend more naturally. In the last 100 pages - worth the price of the ticket - there's nothing ridiculous about the search for perfection and the many ways to fail. End-stage Rose has softer contours than her middle-aged self, especially when filtered through Cicero Lookins's eyes. The novel ends with Sergius Gogan, in a tight situation. But an alternative ending occurs just pages before, when Cicero Lookins delivers this lovely benediction to Rose Zimmer: "You did okay. ... You existed for a while. It's in the record books."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.