One of the Best Books of the Year: Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, The Globe and Mail
Jonathan Lethem, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the MacArthur Fellowship whose writing has been called “as ambitious as [Norman] Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth, and as stinging as Bob Dylan” (Los Angeles Times), returns with an epic yet intimate family saga.
Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her equally passionate and willful daughter, Miriam, flees Rose’s influence for the dawning counterculture of Greenwich Village. Despite their differences, they share a power to enchant the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her feckless chess hustler cousin, Lenny; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinger husband, Tommy Gogan; and their bewildered son, Sergius. Through Lethem’s vivid storytelling we come to understand that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:Left Bennington College after two years
Read an Excerpt
Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.
Sol Eaglin, Important Communist, had rung her telephone. A “committee” wished to see her; no, they’d be happy, delighted, to come to her home, this evening, after their own conference just across the Gardens— was ten too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Sol knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn’t stay long.
How did it happen? Easy. Routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now, after so long, Rose’s turn. She’d cracked the kitchen window to hear their approach. Brewed some coffee. Sounds of the Gardens fi ltered in, smokers, lovers, teenagers sulking in the communal lanes. Though winter’s dark had clamped itself over the neighborhood hours ago, this early November night was uncannily balmy and inviting, last pulse of the earth’s recollection of summer. Other kitchen windows were spilled to the lanes, voices mingled: Rose’s plentiful enemies, fewer friends, others, so many others, simply tolerated. Yet comrades all. According Rose their respect even through their dislike. Respect to be robbed from her by the committee now entering her kitchen.
There were fi ve, including Eaglin. They’d overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment. In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship. And the taking of dictation. Still, Rose sought to be forgiving. These men were too young, apart from Eaglin, to have survived like she had the intellectual somersaults of the thirties, the onset of European Fascism and of the Popular Front; they’d been children during the war. They were drones, men costumed in independent thought who’d become slaves of party groupspeak. None mattered in this room except the sole independent or thoughtful among them, a true and famous organizer, after all, a man of the factory fl oors, Sol Eaglin. And Rose Zimmer’s former lover. Eaglin in his bow tie, hairline now gone behind his high cranium’s arc like the winter’s sun setting. Eaglin the only among them man enough not to meet her eye, the only to grasp anything of the shame of it.
Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual: the living- room trial, the respectable lynch mob that availed themselves of your hospitality while dropping some grenade of party policy on your commitment, lifting a butter knife to slather a piece of toast and using it in passing to sever you from that to which you’d given your life. Yet that it was Communist habit and ritual didn’t mean these boys were good at it, or comfortable: Rose was the veteran. She’d suffered one such trial eight years ago. They sweated; she felt only exhaustion at their hemming and throat- clearing.
The oil painting made small talk. One leaned over and noodled with Rose’s Abraham Lincoln shrine, the small three- legged table bearing her original six- volume Carl Sandburg, a photograph of herself and her daughter at the memorial’s statue in D.C., propped in a little frame, and a commemorative fake cent- piece the circumference of a slice of liverwurst. The young man was fair, like Rose’s fi rst husband— her only husband, yet Rose’s brain persistently offered this slippage, as though some next life lay before her, waiting to be enumerated. The man hefted the medallion and tilted his head idiotically, as if being impressed with the weight of the thing constituted a promising avenue of discourse.
“Honest Abe, then?” he said.
“Put it down.”
He produced an injured look. “We’re aware you’re a civil rights enthusiast, Mrs. Zimmer.”
It was typical of such an evening that every remark found itself getting to the point, whether it wished to or not. Here was the crime the party had invented for Rose, then: excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality. In the thirties she’d been what would later be called, by Redbaiters, a premature anti- Fascist. Now? A too- sensuous egalitarian.
“I had a few slaves,” said Rose, “but I freed them.” At best, a poke at Sol Eaglin. Certainly lost on the young man.
Eaglin stepped in, as he’d been destined to all along, to “handle” her. “Where’s Miriam tonight?” he asked, acting as though his knowledge of her daughter’s name mitigated his incongruous presence in Rose’s life: neither friend nor foe, despite that they’d a hundred times groped at each other’s forms in the darkness. Eaglin was a mere bland operative, an automaton of party policy. Tonight was defi nite proof, like she’d needed proof. You could harbor a man in your bed or your body, play on his nervous system like Paderewski at the keyboard, and not shift his brain one inch out of the concrete of dogma.
Or, for that matter, the concrete of police work.
Nor, incidentally, had she dislodged either man from his wife.
Rose shrugged in reply. “At the age she’s reached I shouldn’t ever know her location, apparently.” Miriam, the prodigy, was fi fteen. Having skipped one grade already she was a high- school sophomore, and a virtual runaway. Miriam lived in other families’ homes and in the dining hall at Queens College, fl irting with Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual phonies, boys who’d a year or two before been scratching their nuts and slapping one another with rolled- up comic books on spinning stools in soda fountains or on the elevated trains, the kind of boys who fell silent, who even quaked, when they shared sidewalks with Rose Zimmer.
“Playing footsie with Cousin Lenny?”
“Sol, the one thing I can say with assurance is she’s anywhere but with Cousin Lenny.” It was Rose’s second cousin Lenin Angrush who’d in fact gifted Rose with the bogus giant penny. A numismatist, he called himself. Lenny, getting the time of day from fi fteen- year- old Miriam? He could dream.
“Let’s not waste any more time,” suggested the young man who’d been at her Lincoln stuff. Rose shouldn’t underestimate the brutal authority of youth: He had some. Eaglin wasn’t the sole power in the room just for being the sole power Rose chose to acknowledge. This young fellow was eager to distinguish himself, likely in the context of some jousting with others present, for status as Eaglin’s protégé. That itself, only a prelude to stabbing Eaglin in the back. Surely that was it.
Poor Sol, really. Still neck- deep in the paranoid muck.
Rose poured them coffee, this brave cohort who’d come to declare she’d picked the wrong Negro. They were talking; she really ought to listen to the verdict. Short of severing the affi liation, Rose would no longer be welcome to the privilege of acting as recording secretary at meetings with union offi cials, including the union at her own workplace, Real’s Radish & Pickle. Her last duty in the party, stripped. There at Real’s, Rose enjoyed the honor of serving in horrifi ed silence as her ham- fi sted comrades bullied workers whose daily facts, whose solidarities, forged side- by- side plunging elbow- deep in barrels of chill salt brine, put to shame the abstractions of the posturing organizers, those arrayed in their dapper suspenders and unwrinkled plaid, not knowing enough to be unashamed of these Halloween- hayride proletarian costumes.
These men in her apartment, they could needless to say go to hell.
Yet Rose’s usual fury was inadequate to the occasion. This kitchenful of moral bandits, even Eaglin, appeared to her sealed in distance, voices dim. The room’s events unspooled before her as if scripted, something happening not to her but to another. A one- act play, worthy of Sunnyside’s Socialist theater troupe, set in Rose’s kitchen and starring her body— her body’s behaviors being the matter under disputation— but no further portion. Heart, if bosom contained one anymore, not in attendance. Rose no longer here. This excommunication something that had already long ago been concluded. She warmed and refi lled coffee, gracing the lynch mob with use of her mother- in- law’s Meissen china, even while they alluded, in terms just oblique enough to salve their own shame but not hers, to Rose’s sex life. Presumed to tell her who to fuck. Who not to fuck, exactly. Or, not to fuck at all. Not to make her own bedroom solidarities with men who, unlike themselves, had the stature and self- possession to want her, to be undeferential to Rose.
For these occupiers of her kitchen, even in their executioner’s errand, were pathetically deferential: to Rose’s force, to her history, to her chest twice the circumference of theirs. She who’d marched in protest of Hitler’s New York birthday party on Fifth Avenue, while American brownshirts pelted her with rotten vegetables. She who’d marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves. Bringing revolution to Negroes, fi ne. To have one particular black cop in her sheets, not so fi ne. Oh hypocrites! Their incessant, ealymouthed usage, again and again droning out of the fog of their talk, was “associations.” They were troubled by her associations. They meant, of course, the association of her rapidly aging Jew Communist vagina with the black lieutenant’s sturdy and affectionate penis.
Yet Rose took orders like a mad lobotomized waitress: A little milk, or cream? With sugar? Oh, you like it black, perhaps? So do I. Her tongue stayed stopped, wit unexpressed. A recording secretary, she recorded. Shorthanded her own tribunal as she would that of another, onto some distant mind’s tablet. Shorthand, even mental shorthand, an act of fi ngers scratching at some page barely registered by the mind itself. Here’s Rose Zimmer, née Angrush, the scourge of Sunnyside, she who ought to be punching like a boxer against the elastic shadows that fi lled her kitchen, these ghastly shades of doctrine, and she couldn’t care. This second trial was, really, only a lousy parody of the fi rst. That fi rst one, that had been something. Then, Rose was important in American Communism. Then, she’d been importantly Communistically married, about to be importantly Communistically divorced. Then, she’d been young. She wasn’t anymore. Now mental pen quit scraping mental tablet. Rose receded even further from the events before her, a present life under assault of disarrangement. “Eaglin?” she said, interrupting some droning insinuation.
The nervous glances that ensued, Eaglin quelled, using his brow like an orchestra conductor would a wand, to cease his players’ tuning. And then he and Rose stepped outside, into the air of the Gardens.