“What Richard Abneg had carried forward, always, anyhow, was a certain sense of his own crucial place in the island’s life. He’d never copped out. And the beard, that too was uncompromised, continuous. He grew it when he was fifteen and reading Howard Zinn and Charles Bukowski and Emmett Grogan. I soaked up Harriet’s description and braced myself. What she hadn’t warned me is that I’d like him.”
—from Chronic City (2009)
“An hour later, Leo Warren pushed through the turnstile at the Lafayette Avenue subway station and boarded a GG train. He was wearing a hat, an overcoat, a turtleneck sweater, and trousers that were all as dark as his shoes. He placed a large shopping bag on the floor beside his seat. It had been a very long time since he rode the subway, and he wasn’t enjoying the experience. The train rattled from side to side, tossed him around the plastic seat, and generally made him uncomfortable. He stared at the newspaper in his hands and counted the stops to Long Island City.”
—Emmett Grogan, from Final Score (1976)
I’d remember it fondly, if I could remember at all, but I was in Ozone Park for the roti, and then down in Ozona, Florida, waiting, while Amber Tides went on a sausage run to Eli’s BBQ in Dunedin. Berger was still in South Brooklyn then, running slightly late. He forgot his notes. He made it up. They talked for hours. The indestructible beat of Gowanus? There must be outtakes but I’ve not heard ‘em. I’m still waiting for tonight’s takeout dinner of crab ‘n dumpling; maybe next time I should fly to Trinidad instead of taking the 4 train to East Flatbush? But these things take time, I know. The following interview first appeared, with a different introduction, in Stop Smiling #38 under the title “Jonathan Lethem: If Dean Street Could Talk.” — Caz Dolowicz
Cracklin’ Maisie Get On Board: Yes, as Caz suggested, there are hours of “outtakes.” Some of it’s great, some fumbling or recondite. As far as Chronic City is concerned, I think readers will find it most interesting to learn the character of Perkus Tooth is based on Jonathan’s friend and mentor, Paul Nelson, a writer, critic, A&R man and video store clerk who died in 2006 at the age of 70. I first heard Paul’s work as a teenage New York Dolls fan; later I was impressed by his liner notes for folk-blues revival heroes, Koerner, Ray & Glover, among others. Caz, did you eat yet? — Brian Berger
Brian Berger: I see you have Nathaniel West on your desk— what’s going on there?
Jonathan Lethem: That’s my work right now, I’m going to write a new introduction to West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. So that’s a pretty exciting assignment. I devoured West when I was a teenager so it’s a good way to reacquaint myself with what feels like a very strong influence but in fact, the details, I barely remember them— that paradox of things I ingested at a very early point become hugely formative but by now are totally unfamiliar.
Brian: I wouldn’t compare you to [Day Of The Locust protagonist] Tod Hackett but it seems some people were rooting for your last novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet (2006), to fail. Did you sense that also?
Jonathan: Yes. As of Fortress of Solitude, I was a traditionally grandiose, emotionally sincere American novelist; with YDLMY it appears I’m writing a thin, frothy romantic novel set in the wrong city. That was something I willed into being— I was ready to throw off any sense that I was going to write sprawling social novels set in Brooklyn and become the Brooklyn Faulkner. Neither Motherless nor Fortress exactly fits that description but the accumulated image of the two books seemed to project that.
I don’t know if it would have been easy or hard for someone else to follow through with it but it was totally out of the question for me. And really, for anyone who’d even glanced at the earlier work that would be obvious but there were a lot of people—and an important critical framework— which had never glanced at the earlier work. YDLMY was a way to shrug that off with a degree of self-destructive glee, to say I’m going to disappoint that and I’m going to disappoint on a number of different levels so we can start over again about expectations. Coming out of four or five years of writing responsibly with Fortress and the biographical essays of The Disappointment Artist (2005), I wanted to rediscover a sense of capriciousness.
Brian: So there are no further adventures of Lionel Essrog forthcoming? Maybe he can quit the private eye racket and became a Brooklyn boutique hotel detective.
Jonathan: Oh, you don’t know how many people are hoping I’ll change my mind. It evokes a lot of sweetness for me that people adore that character and I adore him. He’s nicer than I am, so it’s great that people fell in love with Lionel but I couldn’t do it again in any way that’d be meaningful.
Brian: YDLMY is set in Los Angeles; did you feel Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald looking over your shoulder at all?
Jonathan: Setting it in L.A. was my way of trashing the idea of expertise. If all my authority as a writer comes from Brooklyn then what happens to that writer when he writes abut a place where he has zero credibility?
Taking on Macdonald and Chandler as prose models is how I taught myself to write— Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) comes out of going to shcool on those guys but I didn’t think of them conciously at all until halfway through YDLMY. The models I had in mind—and they’re ones nobody is expected to realize—were like Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch. I was thinking what if I set one of these slightly plastic, mordant social comedies in American hipster culture; what would Iris Murdoch do?
Brian: I don’t want to characterize it as a failure because Daniel Fuchs had a hard time well before you came along but you wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Fuchs’ three Brooklyn novels from the 1930s. Whereas your Library of America work as the editor of their Philip K. Dick collections has been surprisingly successful, is it correct to say Fuchs wasn’t quite welcomed back, even here in Brooklyn?
Jonathan: That was a total publishing failure and distinguised as such not just by comparison to Dick but Fuchs’ John Updike introduced Hollywood Stories, which did get some play. The Brooklyn Novels collection is immense (927 pages), and that’s a problem, but Fuchs has been unsuccessfully republished a few different times. Somehow they’re books the world has been innoculated against. But I’ll also say I love them so much, I’m not sure I hit the biggest home run with my introduction, I didn’t delve as deeply as I could have.
Brian: One of your lesser known Brooklyn influences is Ralph Bakshi, the Brownsville raised animator who did Heavy Traffic (1973)— based in part on his inability to get a film version of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn made— and the brilliant blaxploitation satire, Coonskin (1975).
Jonathan: Heavy Traffic in particular was a signal example of combining of New York outer borough vernacular texture— that feeling of being a kid encountering the city in that kind of way, bridging the world of a dreamy, artistic, imaginative weirdness— with the life of the neighborhood. Bakshi’s style is so inclusive, so rapturous and incisive, so fantastical and has so much grit in it, all those things helped mark the landscape that I could write Fortress into.
Brian: Fortess is this combination of elegiac and ecstatic voices, which people probably didn’t expect from you, although I sense it somewhat in your first partially Brooklyn novel, Girl In Landscape (1998).
Jonathan: There was no reason to expect it, I hadn’t exhibited that except maybe in the weirdest little stolen moments. What I tend to do in my work is rehearse a future voice by giving it to a minor character. If you look at Gun, it’s a very tight book and everything is in a staccato, hardboiled voice— and then the babyheads, who speak in this sort of dada free association style. It was a tiny inkling I might do something crazier. In Amnesia Moon (1996), Chaos is button downed and his verbal landscape is pretty stripped down but he makes crazier characters. Then you get to As She Climbed Across The Table (1997) and the voice is little more free; it’s almost as if written by one of the babyheads from Gun or something, and the blind characters are a total forecast of Motherless. In a way, those two blind guys are a little rehearsal for Lionel Essrog—it’s the obsessive voice.
Brian: Some people felt Fortress of Solitude was obsessively long but I didn’t feel it sag. If anything, some episodes could have been further elongated, like you hear there was once a four hour cut of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973) and think wow, that would be amazing.
Jonathan: I love immensity in films specifically and I like my immense novels— I’ve read all twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and I loved Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren (1974). I wanted to write a book that had that total saturation that, when you’re excited, feels like it’s infinite. It dosn’t mean Fortress is unedited; it was about 100 pages longer than it is now and I reduced it not my block cuts as they say in film but by concentration—stripping sentences, clauses, by tightening and making sure that even in a capacious, fulsome voice there wasn’t any flab. Or at least less flab.
Brian: Did anyone compare Fortress to its antecedents as a Brooklyn street novel, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Steelwork (1970) and Wallace Markfield’s Teitlebaum’s Window (1971)? Sorrentino’s a Catholic in Bay Ridge, Markfield a Jew in Brighton Beach but your acuities are similar.
Jonathan: No, people didn’t even take my own bait— and in some ways my principal model among New York novels— James Baldwin’s Another Country. Steelwork meant a lot to me, as did glimpses Joseph McElroy’s first novel, Smuggler’s Bible, not the entirety of the book but where he talks about excavating the ancient school days and pavement games. Strangley enough, even Don Delillo’s Libra, the first 40 pages with Oswald as a boy on the subway trains, smashing through the tunnels, standing in the front window, looking at the station come in and the track pulls under his feet and Oswald basically getting yoked in the playground in the Bronx—they’re not even chapters but paragraphs where I tasted a writer going to that sensation of boyhood in New York City.
Brian: There’s a curious paradox with Fortress: people are glad to accept you as the Virgil of Gowanus, but your local renown seems to refuse or at least skim over that intensities— affluence and poverty, white, black, Latino and Arab. It’s like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in a way.
Jonathan: It’s the Invisible Man and no matter how much I thrust it at people, I failed totally. What I wanted to say is the past is present, there’s no change in a sense and everybody decided to award me the role of the person who remembered this stuff—they didn’t want to contend with it themselves, the contradictions weren’t manifest in our lives presently.
I’ve been contacted by journalists who wanted to write about Fortress and I’d invite them to meet me where I was living, on Bergen Street near Court. We’d go for a walk around the neighborhood and they’d be like “So you really got mugged on these streets?” After a while I started walking the journalists through the projects to see how they felt about it, because nearly everyone in NYC has these boundaries and their denial is so strong they don’t know they have them. People live in this neighborhood and it allows them to think crime or poverty or crack is in the past and its because they don’t walk on certain blocks.
It’s an incredible thing to walk the block of Warren Street from Smith to Hoyt and let yourself feel the changes that are coming on incrementally with every footstep. The crack den that I portray in the end of the Fortress—it’s not gone.
Brian: When did you learn to drive?
Jonathan: Not until I got to California. My first wife [the writer] Shelley Jackson taught me to drive in a beaten up Peugot we’d bought together. I lived in the Bay Area for a couple years without knowing how to drive, I just imposed my New Yorker’s paradigm on the place and took buses, subways and did things within walking distance.
Brian: Was your relocation there related to your love for Philip K. Dick?
Jonathan: In many ways getting out to California was a reflex because I’d been vowing all through my high school years that I was going to go make a pilgrimage and meet Dick. He died just before I might have pulled off the trip but I still had this image of myself as enacting my destiny by going to Berkeley to meet Dick. Of course, I was off by many hundreds of miles, he was living in Orange County at that point—I was a little confused. When I first lived in Berkeley by dumb luck I got an apartment that was two blocks from Francisco Street where Dick had written a preponderance of his early work, lots and lots of novels that I loved were written just a couple blocks from where I set up shop to write Gun, With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon, my overtly Dickian homages.
Brian: Did you already know Paul Williams, the early rock criticism pioneer (Crawdaddy) and executor of Dick’s literary estate?
Jonathan: Yes, so I move to Berkeley and immediately fall in with Paul Williams, who was a Dylan critic and palled around with Brian Wilson during the Smile era. Paul had just been given the task of sorting out the posthumous papers— the posthumous career—of Dick, which didn’t seem like a going concern. The guy’s work had had its moment and failed in the world at large. There was this cult of 700-800 people who subscribed to the Philip K. Dick Society newsletter which Paul published and we were like the last line of defense for this guy being forgotten or not. Us and a lot of academics like Frederic Jameson—that was the secret weapon— they were also digesting his accomplishment and starting to write about it. But the idea of Vintage having every novel Dick had ever written in a shiny paperback edition would have seemed totally farcical.
Brian: Farcical and dangerous, if somebody accidentally grabs, say, Dr. Futurity instead of Ubik. This is a related shot in the dark but, being in the Bay Area, were you a Residents fan at all?
Jonathan: Oh yeah, I was a crazy Ralph Records guy in Brooklyn! Two of my coolest friends growing up in Park Slope turned me on to Fred Frith, Renaldo an the Loaf and above all the Residents. I saw my first and only Residents show when I got out to San Francisco—it felt like I’d gone to heaven.
The other fateful thing about my interest in the Residents and this ran smack into PKD is Gary Panter, who later became a friend of mine. Panter was doing the album covers for a lot of those Ralph records—I looked at the artwork on those records and recognized it as having a kinship with comic and surrealist art I liked, and the punk posters that defined my experience in high school. Without putting a name to it, those drawings felt right to me. The bizarre thing is, the way I first learned of Gary Panter was in the second or third issue of the PKD Society newsletter was a photograph of Dick near the end of his life being visited by Gary Panter and Gary’s then wife Nicole, with Dick wearing a Raph Records t-shirt that says Rozz-Tox on it. It was like having my brain twisted into a pretzel seeing Dick wearing a drawing that I associated with the Residents— it was like a total Pynchon moment, everything does nest together in one place.
Brian: When you moved back to Brooklyn at the end of 1995, did you bring a car with you? I ask because Motherless requires that driver’s knowledge of the city some people never attain.
Jonathan: Oh, that’s a good story. I left behind a little Corolla, it was the first car I ever owned solo that was just my car and it was a hand-me-down and I got a vanity license plate I’d been fantasizing about, SQUALOR, so it said California SQUALOR. This license plate was slightly famous locally and when I met Daniel Clowes, the person who introduced us said “Jonathan used to drive a car called SQUALOR around Berkeley.” And Dan said “Oh my god, I love that car! I used to see it all the time.” This Corolla wasn’t going to make it across the country so when I left for Brooklyn and I gave it to my sister who was also living in Berkeley. When she came to New York and gave SQUALOR to friend of hers who eventually let another friend borrow it and SQUALOR was used in an armed robbery of a Carl’s Jr and apprehended. So SQUALOR went into police custody. I think it’s a pretty poor idea to commit armed robbery of a hamburger joint if your getaway car has a vanity license plate.
Caz Dolowicz, born on Sands Street in 1923, can get it for your wholesale.