Jonathan Lethem's Gardens of Discontent

A family from Queens gets caught up in Communism in this picture of American political life when everything was changing.

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 284 pages, $27.95

On the evening of February 24, 1956, as the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party came to its formal close, the building of the Central Committee suddenly began to buzz with activity. Outside observers were perplexed. It would take years before they understood the strange occurrence: The leadership of the Communist Party was convening to debate an unofficial address Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was to deliver later that night.

That address -- Khrushchev’s “secret speech” (later leaked) -- hammered the final nail in Stalin’s coffin, three years after his death. In it, Khrushchev assailed his predecessor’s reign of terror, his use of “extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when the revolution was already victorious,” his “complete political liquidation” not only of his enemies but also of those who had risen through the ranks of the party. The revolution, as the hackneyed saying goes, had devoured its own children.

“It was at that moment that true Communism had floated free of history, like smoke,” is how Jonathan Lethem describes that speech in “Dissident Gardens,” his brilliantly caustic and deeply moving new novel. It’s no coincidence that Lethem sets the book’s opening scene -- a gathering of American Communist Party members in a cramped kitchen in Sunnyside, Queens -- mere months before the speech takes place. Soon, the disillusionment will hit, and such gatherings, with all their bluster and aplomb, would prove historically insignificant -- even laughable.

The novel is filled with such instances of mistiming and missed opportunities. “American Communism, born in parlors,” Lethem writes wryly, “had gone to the kitchen to die.” The particular kitchen in “Dissident Gardens” is presided over by Rose Zimmer, a firebrand Jewish revolutionary whose German husband abandoned her and their young daughter a decade earlier to become a Communist spy in Germany, a woman “unforgiving in her nature and intoxicating in her demands, her abrupt swerves and violent exclusions.”

A cabal of comrades has arrived to oust Rose for having an affair with a black police lieutenant -- a double offense, as they perceived it. For her, the expulsion is the equivalent of a death sentence, her membership in the party having long signified “the sole accomplishment of her life, short of balancing a pickle factory’s books.” Even her first name encapsulates her Red ambitions -- restricted and domesticated by her husband’s surname (German for “room”). Clearly, she is a woman born on the wrong side of history.

But the novel isn’t a metaphor for the death of America’s radical left, or an account of the women who silently stood at its helm. Because, in breezes Miriam, Rose’s teenage daughter -- “the maven of MacDougal Street” -- and shifts the focus of the book entirely. Rather than a history book writ small, we realize, this is a powerful family portrait writ large.

At 17, Miriam, with her raven-haired good looks and sardonic, Rose-inspired quips, makes a doormat of every man she encounters. In one beautifully sketched chapter, Miriam enters a shoebox nightclub with one young man, and leaves with another. Outside, in the cold, they see Brooklyn and feel alive compared to “the sea of sleepers beyond.” But the night is all theirs, unfolding like a dream:

“So forget Rose’s secret meetings, her living rooms, her smoky kitchens. This night, right here, New York splayed before them, a banquet they feared to eat, Miriam understood for the first time clearly that her Secret Commie Powers were not actually a joke: Miriam Zimmer understood that tonight she was a leader of men. Not just men slavering over her curves or astonished at her wit or haunted by her Jewish mysteries or dazzled by [her] fluency with the city’s mad systems, the subway lines, the Staten Island Ferry terminal and its pigeon population, the significance of a Dave’s egg cream on Canal Street, the parsing of baseball affiliation since Dodgers and Giants were fleeing to California. … Surviving Rose and Sunnyside Gardens, that suburb of disappointment, had made Miriam sublime, a representative of the League of Absconded Kings and Queens.”

Swept up by the promise of young love, Miriam sneaks the boy home to that “suburb of disappointment,” only to have Rose barrel in on them in a swirl of rage. What follows, after the boy is promptly dispensed with, is one of the novel’s pivotal scenes, involving a mother, a daughter and a gas-filled oven. We meet Miriam again, later on, as a budding revolutionary in her own right, tugging a child along to civil-rights marches and trying to make a protest artist out of her under-accomplished husband. Yet Rose’s presence persists, like an outstretched shadow, “The ceaseless arrangement of mother and daughter coiled in fury at each other yet still bulwarked together inside this apartment against the prospect of anything and anyone else outside.”

‘Gay, black and overweight’

Through the Zimmers and their extended family -- Miriam’s reticent son, Sergius; a cousin, Lenny, named after Lenin, who is obsessed with forming a “proletarian” major league baseball team; and Cicero, the son of Rose’s ex-lover, who grows up to become a tiresome small-town professor (as well as the faculty’s “miraculous triple token, gay, black and overweight”) -- Lethem chronicles three generations of fringe activism, from the Communist Party to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, all the way to the Occupy movement.

But it’s not the utopian dream itself that he attempts to distill so much as its shattered fragments -- the snap awakening that follows. One gets the sense that the story is deeply rooted in autobiography; Lethem, the author of eight previous novels, has acknowledged in an interview on PBS that “the source for the book was contemplating all the kind of dark areas in my experience of my grandmother’s life, that I knew she’d had a gigantic political existence in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, and yet all of this was sort of sealed in silence by the time I came along.” An echo of this familial exploration can be found in Sergius, whose summoning of his grandmother’s political past for creative purposes (in his case, music) seems to resonate with Lethem. It’s perhaps telling that, after all those years of attending street demonstrations with his parents, what Sergius recalls most vividly is not the hopeful marchers or their rallying cause, but the alarming sight of a policeman’s horse, “its widening, abysmal nostrils, sweat-rivers on bulging breast, jackbooted cop dwarfed in saddle by the disaster of the animal itself.”

“Dissident Gardens” points us to the reckless side of idealism: Each cause for Lethem is equally sympathetic and, it would appear, equally doomed. A triumph of defeat is at work here. When Miriam participates in a television game show, we know that despite her keen intellect, she will leave empty-handed. She arrives at the NBC studios stoned, in an outfit she usually reserves for bail hearings; situated between two male contestants, she “feels responsible to the vibrational neediness of the men at either side.” We suddenly see her as the viewers at home do, timid and confused, presented to them as “a wife, mother, and community organizer.” As the glad-handing host is quick to add, in pointless banter, “My mother was sort of a community organizer, too, she’d organize the community of me and my brother to school each day, and believe me, it wasn’t easy.” The unfunny joke cruelly comes at Miriam’s expense.

A similar thing happens to Cicero, a chess prodigy, who, having been proudly shuttled by Miriam to a chess store in Greenwich Village to play against Lenny, ends up losing miserably and vowing never to play again. Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s husband and a strapped musician, is equally smacked back to reality. His experiments with a form he calls “the living blues” garner him a review from a critic that ends with this sorry kicker: “People call Dylan arrogant, but I’ll take that over Gogan’s sob-sister hand-wringing any day.” Theirs is the story of the marginalized and the perpetually disappointed, the also-rans of American history. It’s also, Lethem suggests, a wholly Jewish story (albeit one shared in the novel by non-Jews alike).

Years later, Rose would relay her underdog sensibility to Cicero -- whom she raised as a kind of stepson, telling him, “You can quit being a Jew, it’s done all the time. Be absorbed into the parade of American winners.” The irony, of course, is that for Rose this is next to impossible. Instead, she becomes a pent-up force of contradictions: a radical who swoons over men in uniform “bringing cold justice”; a nonconformist whose idol is Lincoln; an ailing old lady fixated -- hilariously -- on Archie Bunker. In one wildly imagined scene, Archie even makes a cameo appearance -- the novel’s only wink at Lethem’s penchant for the fantastical and the surreal. He’s every inch the bigot readers remember him to be (“It’s like this, Rose. A Jew and a gentile ain’t got a Chinaman’s chance”), yet Rose oddly identifies with him. Maybe it’s no wonder. Both of them know what it’s like to be jostled “in the mouth of history, shaken like a mouse in a cat’s.” If, in the beginning of the novel, Miriam is the victim of Rose’s wrath, by the end, it’s the idealist Rose who becomes a casualty of our times.

“The problem with all utopian ideologies is they pit themselves against the tyranny of the bourgeois family,” Lethem writes, paraphrasing Doris Lessing. Just as we anticipate, there will be no winners in this battle, only timeworn scars.

Ruth Margalit, who reviews books frequently for Haaretz English Edition, is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

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