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The Rewards of Zeitgeist

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

The Agony Column for August 25, 2003


The presence of a problem draws the attention of those who would solve it. Whether it's psychics to a crime or scientists to a paradox, a question brings out experts with an answer. Few questions are as simple as "Who done it?" or "How was it done?" Problems that are abstruse, difficult to articulate may find themselves answered not in fact, but in fiction. Often, the same problem will attract the attention of different thinkers, who offer up varied mediations on the same theme. Either zeitgeist is a lot more powerful than we'd like to think, or publishers and authors are bugging one another's boardrooms and bedrooms. Authors are most assuredly too busy to do much beyond writing and publicizing their books, but I wouldn't put anything past a publisher. Since books originate in an author's mind, zeitgeist is the best explanation as to why we get books addressing similar problems at the same time.

David Corbett wrote a complex mystery.

Jonathan Lethem wrote a complex epic.

Both writers drew from similar themes to create great novels that read well together.
Racial tension is a problem that's not going gentle into any night, good or otherwise. It may not be amenable to any solution ever. In the interim, it will attract the minds of our strongest and most articulate thinkers, those who cannot conceal from themselves the imbalance that greets us with every day. It's been the inspiration of writers as great and diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Ellison. In twenty-first century America, you can probably find a new book every single day of the year shaped by this tidal pull. This year, you can find two of the finest works I've read in the fictional eddies and currents shaped by this cultural power. Both novels respond to the same cultural gravitic forces, both novels draw from the same underground reservoirs. Though each novel responds to the magnetic draw differently, each is pulled through different channels, speaks in different voices, they arrive at a similar conclusion that can only be understood by the experience of reading each novel in its entirety. Jonathan Lethem takes the Great American Novel route in 'The Fortress of Solitude' and brings in a novel that is as satisfying as anything I've read in this vein since 'The Corrections'. David Corbett's Great American Mystery 'Done for a Dime' has already drawn favorable comparisons to Hammet and Chandler. Both novels treat startlingly similar themes, each in its own unique fashion. Race relations figure prominently in both novels, but each also presents important thoughts on father-son relationships, musicians, and the invidious process of gentrification. Yes, the similarities are in a sense superficial; they're pure coincidence and zeitgeist. But each writer brings a level of skill and art to their work that results in a passionate success. If you're looking for a one-two punch in your reading list this year, Lethem and Corbett make a great pair. Prose, depth and characterization will carry these novels into your heart; the resonance between the two will take your heart to a place it has never been.

This year's Great American Novel.

This year's Great American Mystery.

These two novels are the perfect complement to one another.

While each novel treats the theme of race relations, they don't accord it equal weight. In Lethem's novel, this is clearly the starting point. Dylan Ebdus is the lone white boy in the otherwise entirely black neighborhood of Boerum Hill Brooklyn. His every movement, his every word and experience is shaped by his color and in relation to the boys and girls who surround him. Taking place in the 1970's it could be no other way. Lethem uses this start point to establish a deep perspective on the changes that will follow in the world and in the novel. Corbett is operating from a more limited (though no less potentially and actually powerful) scope. 'Done for a Dime' brings about a discussion of race relations in terms of the attitudes of the policemen and the political wheeler-dealers who either experience or exploit them. While Lethem is looking forward at how history and experience create what we have today -- lots of young black men in jail, for example -- Corbett views this from the perspective of today looking backward, as young black men of various socio-economic stripes and guilt hover on the edge of being in or out of jail based mostly on bad luck or circumstance, and an inter-racial romance runs its course. The two novels inform one another in a fascinating fashion. Lethem gives us both the history and result of that history; Corbett gives us the result of that history across a variety of experience and economic achievement. Lethem gives the reader epic plot and scope, while Corbett provides a propulsive plot to corner his characters in a maze that really has no escape. Lethem's layers of detail and experience will fill the reader's world; Corbett's characters and tension will sear the reader's soul. Reading one novel in the vicinity of the other proves a wealth of experience and joy that will leave the reader thinking for weeks afterwards, finding echoes and reverberations. While there may be no solution to the problems of race relations, there is certainly room for everyone to deepen their understanding and experience of it. Lethem and Corbett provide a fictional map and a light, a plot and perspective, an intense complicated rhythm and a soaring melody.

All that sonic metaphor is most appropriate when talking about 'The Fortress of Solitude' and 'Done for a Dime'. Both novels also offer remarkably realistic and readable portraits of musicians. Music is difficult to do well in a novel, but Lethem and Corbett have both done their research and lived their lives with enough of an artist's eye to capture the world of the working musician. Lethem resides firmly in the pop world, and makes even the bubblegum hits of the 1970's resound with eerie power. Corbett plays jazz, with a father and son team of horn players who fight and bicker in a complex harmony. The old-man musician of Lethem's novel, Barret Rude Junior is a one-time doo-wop singer going to seed in the South Bronx. In stuttering spurts he stumbles slowly downhill through the seventies and eighties, never quite embarrassing himself. Corbett imagines a more fruitful, but not much more successful fate for his old jazz player. Raymond "Strong" Carlisle has found a low-key groove as the leader of his own band, The Mighty Firefly. His son leads his own, more adventurous group. Lethem outdoes himself in his musical history, providing a fascinating and complex look at the development of a segment of music performed mostly by black players. No reader will forget 'The Prisonaires', whose history Lethem weaves into his fascinating tapestry. Corbett covers the emotional side of the musician's life in terse terms befitting his smaller canvas. Both father and son have complicated relationship not just with one another but with their bands, those close to the bands' members, and even the bookers who provide them with employment. Together, Lethem and Corbett create a textured look at a wide swath of recent American musical history.

Father son relationships also inform the stories, form the core of each novel. Lethem approaches three father-son relationships in great detail, while Corbett focuses only on one. Lethem has a wide canvas to work with, and covers years and stages of development in a detail that brings to rich life an entire neighborhood of children. The Ebdus family is white and alienated, Abraham isolated in his own fortress while Dylan builds his. The Rude family dynamic stretches across three generations of competition, disapproval, rebellion and righteousness. It's complicated and dense and plays out with some of the most powerful scenes in the novel. Taken with the story of the Ebdus clan, it's a grand opera, complex and moving, filled with the kind of detail one can only find on a wide canvas. As reader, you'll find the Corbett portrait fits in to his intense mystery like a solo sax backing the PI as he walks the lonely streets. Corbett details his relationship with memories and guilt-filled re-creations of times that may never have been. Father Raymond is headstrong, principled in some ways and not in others. The messages that echo from his death at the beginning of the novel play soulfully until the end. Toby, his son, is contradictory, proud, confused; the reader is given reason to doubt the authenticity of his relationship to Raymond. Reading Lethem and Corbett together will pull the reader's perceptions into a complex and enjoyable tangle.

Where the novels diverge the most in their similarities is in their treatment of gentrification. It's here that their divergent genres and mores play the largest influence. Lethem's epic perspective allows his gentrification to take place over thirty years. In Corbett's novel, gentrification is the result of a corporate assault on a neighborhood, and accelerated by vicious violence. For Lethem, this is the literal seed of the novel. A hunched old white woman invests in a bad neighborhood, hoping that by sheer force of her personality, she can convert it if not from poor to rich, then at least from black to white. Isabel Vendle is the last vestige of a gentler age, who in dying gives birth to trendy upscale eateries. The change is so slow as to be imperceptible. Lethem's entire take on this process is evolutionary. Not so with David Corbett, who is definitely a revolutionary, at least when it comes to the pace of change. His revolution is fueled not by idealism, but greed. Following the mold of the masterful 'Red Rain', Corbett portrays a neighborhood under assault by a clever combination of shady interests and violent thugs. But there's always a problem inherent in dealing with thugs. If it proves they have a sense of righteousness they can be a hundred times more dangerous than if they are merely employed. It's in this arena where Corbett wears the opera hat, and his characters make powerful grand gestures that manage to ring hauntingly true.

Both 'Done for a Dime' and 'The Fortress of Solitude' are powerful novels. Readers can count themselves fortunate to have such a wonderful set of complementary works issued one after the other. Sure, it's all just coincidence that both novels treat a number of grand themes with power and grace. They do so differently, one as a grand epic, the other a grand mystery. Lethem is at the peak of his writing capability; Corbett's offering is a grand second novel. Each writer offers one of the best reading experiences you can find this year; read them together and you'll experience a synergy that will color your thinking and complicate your world in ways you could never anticipate.