Jonathan Lethem's 'Dissident Gardens' is Communist family saga

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Jonathan Lethem, author of

Jonathan Lethem, author of "Dissident Gardens" (Doubleday, September 2013). Photo Credit: John Lucas

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DISSIDENT GARDENS, by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 366 pp., $27.95.

Rose Zimmer -- the hyper-opinionated Queens Communist at the heart of Jonathan Lethem's dizzying new novel -- has everything but a big eleven o'clock number. And it isn't hard to imagine this suffocating, stymied matriarch belting out her own proletarian rendition of "Rose's Turn" from "Gypsy." Lethem's Rose is monstrous and overbearing but never less than human in her outsize hungers and bitter disappointments.

"Dissident Gardens," the 10th novel from the author of "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Fortress of Solitude," opens in the Queens housing development of Sunnyside Gardens in 1955, as an ad hoc committee of functionaries descends on Rose's apartment to drum her out of the party. "Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual," Lethem writes. "The living-room trial, the respectable lynch mob that availed themselves of your hospitality while dropping some grenade of Party policy on your commitment." Rose's sin? "They were troubled by her associations" -- specifically, her extramarital affair with black cop Douglas Lookins.

From there, "Dissident Gardens" sweeps back and forth in time, introducing Rose's daughter, Miriam, who resists her mother but is also yoked to her, Miriam's father having been dispatched by the Party to East Germany. Miriam will forge her own sensibility and politics in the earnest folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the mid 1960s, marrying Tommy Gogan, an Irish folk singer.

There's Cicero Lookins, the gay whiz-kid son of Rose's cop, mentored by Rose for an Ivy League future; and Sergius Gogan, Miriam and Tommy's son, orphaned by his parents' far-flung political commitments; and even Lenin "Lenny" Angrush, Rose's second cousin, who dreams of a socialist baseball team, the Sunnyside Pros.

Lethem is a master of the set piece chapter -- such as the one where precocious 14-year-old Miriam sneaks a Columbia boy into the Sunnyside Gardens apartment; their discovery by Rose has nearly apocalyptic ramifications. Or a later chapter that captures Tommy's marijuana-fuzzed enchantment by Miriam at the beginning of their courtship: "Her attentions had seemed to him like a glorious bottle into which he'd hoped to slip himself and then expand, like a model ship. ... Instead, he felt like a lightning bug, zooming inside only to be swallowed, rebounding against the impassive glass, pulsing a small light so as not to be lost inside."

It's hard to beat prose like that, and Lethem delivers, page after page. The novel occasionally groans beneath the weight of its many characters and their many quirks, some more engaging than others. And for a novel about political engagement, the characters' beliefs don't get much of an airing. None of that detracts from the abundant pleasures in "Dissident Gardens," a big. unromantic valentine to one unorthodox, only-in-New York family.

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