The Short Version: Dylan Ebdus is the first white kid on the block in what-we-now-call Boerum Hill in the 1970s. This is a novel about growing up in Brooklyn when shit was really happening. Loosely autobiographical, with a healthy dose of science fiction sprinkled on top, we follow Dylan as he goes from scrawny kid to full-fledged adult and we see the various ways in which his childhood – and his friendship with Mingus Rude, the son of a black musician – ripple outward through the rest of his life.
The Review: So I guess I’m going somewhat backwards through Lethem’s ouvre. I started with his “goodbye to New York” novel Chronic City, set on the Upper East Side I now call home, just one a few universes removed from ours. Now we’re into what was supposed to be his magnum opus, his career defining novel about good ol’ Brooklyn. Chronic is one of the most affecting books I’ve read in the last ten years – the way it has stuck with me long after books read in the interim have faded into hazy vague memories – and so expectations here were high.
And for the first 300 pages or so, they were met. The novel takes its sweet time to get going, to the point that it was just about as frustrating as one of those really hot New York summer days that seems to drag on forever and you can’t get cool no matter where you are. I wasn’t around in New York in the 70s & early 80s but from everything I’ve been told, Lethem nails it. He was one of the first white kids in the Gowanus area and you can feel the reality suffuse the writing. It’s the little details: the turns of phrase, the added description, the sense-memory of it all. When he describes a truck passing through a street ball game and how they’d flatten themselves against cars, holding onto the door handles… it’s that second part, the bit about the door handles, that makes it feel like more than just your imagination painting the picture. I don’t know why, exactly, that’s the example that struck me – but when I read that, I suddenly realized that he was dredging up his own childhood memories and putting them on the page. The cracks in the sidewalks, the way they’d steal comic books and spraypaint, the individual character of each block on Dean and Nevins and Flatbush. It’s all too painstakingly presented to be anything other than ripped straight out of somebody’s mental celluloid. A scene where Dylan, now a high school punk, is at CBGB’s is another example: the right amount of “that’s exactly what it must’ve felt like” mixed with the hazy sense of drugs and memories makes the experience of “Underberg” – the first section of the novel – a visceral one. Your childhood might’ve been completely different (I know mine was) but there are shared universalities about being a kid that adults often forget how to describe… but when you hear them described, you’re sent flying back in time to when you too were in short pants. And Lethem’s sustained ability to do just that is breathtaking.
It’s a shame, then, that the novel loses its way on the downhill slope. Part Two, a short section called “Liner Note”, is a jarring transition piece – someone somewhere described it as American Psycho-esque – that is exactly what it says it is: a liner note for a box set of Barrett Rude Jr.’s recordings. If anything, this alone should’ve kept people from being surprised that Lethem stepped up to write a 33 1/13 about Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music” – it’s painstaking and smart and you realize that this is a writer who knows a ton about music. How it feels, how it binds itself to moments, how it changes the very way you perceive the world. I also just like weird little Easter eggs like that. Almost like a literary intermission.
But the curtain rises on an Act Two (Part Three, by book terms) that is nearly unrecognizable from what came before. The cliffhanger at the end of “Underberg” had a predictable conclusion… but in the shift to first-person narration and the jump to the end of the 90s, there’s something lost. There’s a sense of feeling that is lost. Perhaps it’s that the nostalgia for the 90s hasn’t really set in yet. I don’t know. We’re screaming down the road towards the 90s being as far away from the present as the 70s were when this book was published, so maybe time will change the experience of the novel. But what I can tell you is that it feels damned listless. You realize that while the first part of the novel was terrific, there wasn’t really much of a plot. What plot there was, you discover somewhat retroactively, was not just a bildungsroman about growing up in the 70s in Brooklyn but instead a story about trying to escape from that very existence. We see, in flashback, that Dylan did escape Brooklyn and went to Camden College (what up, Bret Easton Ellis?) before transferring to Berkeley and staying there. He’s now a music writer with a black girlfriend and a general sense of being really pretty fucked up. There’s no propulsion to his life – he just is. Even when he decides to do something, it feels like the author is pushing him to do it instead of it being anything remotely organic.
I suppose the failure of this latter half, however, comes from the object introduced in the first half that makes this story something more than just fiction. Dylan’s father paints covers of pulp sci-fi novels and there’s a healthy appreciation for the sci-fi in all of Lethem’s work… but here, he introduces a magic ring that bestows upon the wearer the power of flight. And later invisibility. This idea is pretty cool: let’s give kids, real kids, superpowers and see how badly they manage to fuck things up. For every Spider-man, there would be two hundred Dylan & Mingus duos doing stupid shit, wanting to be superheroes but really just kind of bumbling around. But it’s as though Lethem can’t commit to the ring, to the whole concept. What kid wouldn’t be abusing the hell out of the power of that ring? Apparently not Dylan and Mingus – although they certainly get in their share of uses. But when the ring reappears in the second half of the novel, Dylan now a music critic and Mingus now a regular on the incarceration scene, it feels ham-fisted. None of it feels right, just as the entirety of what came before felt so right. As the pages dwindled in that second half, I felt my admiration for the book slipping. I didn’t want it to – I wanted to hold onto the adoration I felt for that first half – but the flaws were just too big. Things got sloppy. I didn’t recognize Dylan – which was perhaps the point: that the child and the adult are unrecognizable to each other, despite having lived a single unbroken existence. Still, that’s only something that comes with time. The change happens incrementally and while we watch it happen in Brooklyn… we’re then thrust into this strange future and allowed glimpses back, glimpses that don’t totally make sense.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s like Lethem heard all the buzz surrounding this novel while he was writing it… and then got the yips and flubbed the landing. The first 300 pages are near-virtuosic brilliance – even when Lethem’s prose gets the better of him (come on, guy – there is such a thing as too flowery), he’s still weaving together this reality on the page. It’s hot and sticky and full of love for the world-gone-by. And that just makes the disappointment of the final 200 pages so heartbreaking. It’s like watching a perfect routine at the Olympics and then on the dismount they were just too tired from being so awesome and they lose it. Doesn’t make the earlier bit any less amazing – but it also can’t be separated from the inability to sustain through the whole thing.