A red Rose grows in Brooklyn, marries German refugee Albert (from a once-wealthy family but also a gung-ho Jewish communist like herself), and after some debate (a specialty), moves with him to the planned community of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. There in this imagined socialist utopia, Rose Angrush Zimmer gives birth to daughter Miriam, who at the dawn of the ‘60s, will herself rebel.
This, grossly simplified, is the tale of “Dissident Gardens,” Jonathan Lethem’s rich, grotesque and tender family saga, the latest, most pungent of his accounts of growing up absurd in New York City.
Lethem’s ninth novel is also the one with the greatest historical span. Rose and Albert meet cute in the mid-1930s, both dispatched by their separate, poorly coordinated Communist cells to infiltrate a meeting of the Gramercy Park Young People’s League; some 70 years later, their grandchild Sergius meets something like a young version of Rose, at an Occupy manifestation in a New England college town.
Portraying three generations of American leftists, “Dissident Gardens” is a tragic farce that takes as its central joke that as Rose is verging on dementia, she comes to realize that the 20th century’s “great comedy” was “that Communism had never existed, not once.”
Daughter Miriam is born in 1942 with America at war, with the Axis and indigenous Communism in full anti-fascist flower. Then, as the poisonous weed of the Cold War develops, fraternal feelings toward the Soviet Union wither and Reds such as Miriam’s parents find themselves rooted out. Albert repatriates to East Germany, never to return, while Rose is expelled from the party for her loud mouth and open affair with a married, black cop.
It is Miriam’s misfortune — and Rose’s greatness as a character — that her mother never loses her faith. Rose is not just the Red Queen of Sunnyside Gardens but also the Red Queen to Miriam’s Alice in Wonderland. A one-woman Communist Party, Rose battles on, swimming against the tide of history — a frighteningly intelligent woman locked in mortal combat with her equally smart daughter.
Eluding the romantic designs of second cousin Lenny (short for “Lenin”), whose other impossible dreams include bringing “urban socialistic baseball” to Queens in the form of the Sunnyside Pros (short for Proletarian), Miriam splits for the boho folkie mecca of MacDougal Street, weds somewhat hapless Irish protest singer Tommy Gogan, lives in an East Village commune and gives birth to Sergius (inappropriately named for Norman Mailer’s sexual swashbuckler Sergius O’Shaugnessy in “The Time of Her Time”). She and Tommy then join the Sandinistas, leaving Sergius to be brought up motherless at a Quaker school in rural Pennsylvania and, never less than bewildered, ring down the curtain in the more or less present, post-Cold War day.
Adroitly set in the once-real alternate universe of American Communist true believers, “Dissident Gardens” is as full of riffs as Rose and Miriam are of opinions. The madcap night when 17-year-old Miriam attempts to lose her virginity to a Columbia undergrad she has picked up in a Village coffee house and dragged back to Sunnyside, but then winds up brawling with her mother in the tiny kitchen of their garden apartment, is a showstopper that deserves to be named, pace Gypsy, “Rose’s Turn.” Many chapters later, Miriam finds her voice in a long letter, at once totally stoned and absolutely lucid, that she writes to her father at the Werkhofinstitut Rosa Luxemburg in Dresden, unread (except by the Stasi and us).
Lethem is a master of rhetoric as well as a master ventriloquist, at one point channeling that other son of western Queens, Archie Bunker, in a flawless burst of sustained pop surrealism. In its way, “Dissident Gardens” is as extravagantly cross-referenced as anything by Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps one needs to know something about murder victim Kitty Genovese, corrupt Queens borough president Donald Manes, the progressive children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand” and how the New York Mets emerged from the wreckage of the Continental League to appreciate Lethem’s wit.
To list his evident heroes, Lethem is as ambitious as Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth and as stinging as Bob Dylan — not least when he describes the effect of “Like a Rolling Stone” on Miriam’s poor Tommy: “For two weeks now the new Dylan had poured from every radio in Greenwich Village, from parlor windows thrust wide as if to draw the last shreds of oxygen from the suffocated sidewalks, the track’s sound mercurial and seasick, its scorning inquiry forcing each lonely person to give account, if only to themselves: how does it feel?”
Impressive as they were, previous novels “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Fortress of Solitude” had difficulty piloting their ungainly narratives to safe harbor; although formally more coherent, “Chronic City” was also a slighter tale. “Dissident Gardens” shows Lethem in full possession of his powers as a novelist, as he smoothly segues between historical periods and internal worlds. I was rapt, although, having myself grown up in Queens among wannabe folkies and the children of persecuted Stalinists, a habitué of Shea Stadium (a “Sterno can in Band-Aids of orange and blue” that “heaved into view two stops before the Willets Point exit”) as well as a member of the Student Peace Union, I may not be entirely objective.
As Lethem writes of Miriam, “Dissident Gardens” is a “hilarious and companionable” novel. It’s also erudite, beautifully written, wise, compassionate, heartbreaking and pretty much devoid of nostalgia.
Hoberman’s most recent book is “Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema.”
Doubleday: 384 pp., $27.95