21 April 2007

The Importance Of Place

I had some credit left on a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, so I picked up a handful of books there, mostly stuff related to New York or, more specifically, Brooklyn. One of them was The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.

It's either an indictment of how poorly I keep up with the literary scene, or a result of having spent most of the past ten years outside the country, but I'd never heard of the book or the author. Apparently I was one of the few people in New York City, at least among my friends and acquaintances, who hadn't, because I could barely mention the title or the concept without someone offering me an opinion on it. Consensus was that it was "pretty good" to "just short of great," but nearly everyone who praised it seemed to do so with a vague sense of reservation.

"I have some issues with it," I'd hear, or "There are problematic aspects." What those might be remained unspecified, and didn't stop me from tearing through the first two thirds of the book completely enthralled. It was only when the scene suddenly shifted from Brooklyn to Berkeley that I felt my own hackles beginning to bristle ever so slightly.

I suppose if I had grown up in Gowanus, my reaction might have been reversed. We generally tend to get over-protective when someone sets out to tell the tale of a place we consider "ours," especially if the writer in question is perceived as an outsider. I was practically mesmerized by Lethem's account of growing up white in a largely black and pre-gentrified Boerum Hill, largely because it rang so true. I never spent much time in that part of Brooklyn during the time Lethem was writing about, but it dovetailed with my experiences in Flatbush and on the Lower East Side.

One of the devices Lethem uses to great effect is place names. He specifically identifies streets and neighborhoods, not just by name, but by sense and feel as well. Anyone who's at all familiar with Brooklyn has walked down some of those streets and had similar encounters. For a relative neophyte like me, that's enough to seal the deal; I have no grounds whatsoever to question the story's authenticity.

But then we're in Berkeley, and although I'm not a native there either, I've got 30+ years of history in and around that town. My first quibble came when Lethem's alter-ego - no matter how it's billed, the book doesn't stray too far from memoir territory - ponders strolling down to San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville and catching a cab back to Berkeley. That might sound perfectly plausible to a New Yorker, but not the sort of thing I'd associate with my memories of San Pablo.

That's a minor point, and I might even be wrong; it's not like I've ever been a regular cab-taker, after all. But Lethem really falls down when he mentions the "famous problem" of drive-by shootings in "the poorer suburbs of the Bay Area, Richmond and El Cerrito." Richmond, sure, but El Cerrito? Gangland violence is about as common there as Republicanism in Berkeley.

I happen to know that because I have family and friends there, but how anyone could live in or around Berkeley and not know that beggars belief. Lethem follows it up with a reference to "the suburbs surrounding Berkeley on three sides." Let's see, there's the Berkeley Hills on one side, San Francisco Bay on another, and... well, I guess viewed from a certain angle, Berkeley could be seen to have five sides.

These are the only outright clunkers I've spotted (I haven't quite finished the book yet), but I find them disturbing, because they call into question the accuracy of what went before. It's especially bewildering because Lethem gets other aspects of Berkeley so dead to rights. There's a description of KALX, the campus radio station, that portrays the old Bowditch Street studios with greater detail than I could manage, despite having (I would imagine) spent far more time there than Lethem. He even namechecks several KALX DJs, including Gilman soundman and Blatz bassist Marshall Stax, though he does miss out on fellow author Dr. Frank, who was also a KALX stalwart during the era in question.

I also wondered why, in a novel replete with real places and real people, Lethem uses "Camden College" as an utterly transparent stand-in for Bennington (which Lethem himself actually attended), and then answered my own question before I could finish typing it: the probably very accurate portrayal of officially countenanced drug use would likely have led to lawsuits. Perhaps a similar situation obtained with respect to "Shaman's Brigadoon," a club apparently meant to stand in for the Freight and Salvage or Ashkenaz. On the other hand, Lethem shows no reluctance to name, locate and identify as a drug den the notorious Bosun's Locker on Shattuck and 60th, probably because a) it's no longer operating under that name, and b) as the site of some well-publicized shootings and one particularly notorious "massacre," it's hardly susceptible to having its reputation blackened.

None of this diminishes my belief that a sense of place adds immensely to a novel, song, any work of art, really, and for the most part, Lethem nails it better than most. Provided I don't catch him in any further solecisms, I'll still be inclined to think of TFOS as a great book. But it just goes to show that novelists need to be just as assiduous in their fact-checking as journalists. Maybe more so, because who really expects what they read in the paper to be believable?


mikki said...

That's weird because he lived in SF for years. I haven't read any of his books but he was roommates with a friend of a friend. (Oh wait, I did read the detective book with the kangaroo.)

mikki said...

Whoops not saying "He was roommates with a friend of a friend" as a namedroppy thing but that is how I know he lived in SF.

My sentence structure is off in the mornings.

SKiP said...

My Mom tried to get me to read "Gun With Occasional Music" way back in the wayback, because apparently the guy who wrote it worked at Moe's on Telegraph. And that guy, as we all know was...

So you could always look at places differently. I spent nearly all my formative years in the East Bay and found a lot of places scary that weren't, so I may have written about them as scary places too, but that's because I was/am a dweeb