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The Freewheeling Jonathan Lethem

Pam Black
March 19, 2018

by Pam Black


A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem’s tenth and most recent novel (2016), is a romp of a read, laden with lush language, cynical wit, and bizarre twists. It follows Alexander Bruno, a jaded, 50-ish backgammon ace and ladies’ man, to secret, international, high-stakes gambling parlors, where he fleeces the rich with his superior gaming skills, keen psychological insight, and a dash of telepathy.

Abandoned by a drug-addled, hippie mother in San Francisco, Bruno has worked his way up through the tutelage of a gay restaurateur “who taught him how to make his strapping body both unthreatening and fascinating,” When the novel opens, Bruno is managed by the preening Edgar Falk to become a tux-toting gambler who plays for no less than five hundred Singapore dollars per point.

But Bruno is on a losing streak. When Edgar sends him to Berlin to meet with a prospect, a wealthy “whale,” Bruno notices that a black blot in his eyesight has begun to grow. (A blot in backgammon is a lone, therefore vulnerable, piece). In the whale’s ornate mansion, where Bruno is served hors d’oeurvres by a half-naked woman in a leather mask, he starts to win — but then, with the blot steadily growing, he loses badly, has a seizure, and lands in a local hospital.

His diagnosis: a tumor growing behind his face that will eventually kill him. The only doctor who can do the surgery is in San Francisco, where Bruno had vowed never to return. Broke and desperate, he turns to a sleazy but wealthy high school acquaintance, Keith Stolarsky, whom he had run into in Singapore. Stolarsky’s wealth comes from turning half of Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue into a honky-tonk conglomeration of burger joints, t-shirt stores, and fast-food parlors — a place that’s referred to as the Death Star, and Stolarsky as its Darth Vader.

The operation breaks up the narrative with a deep dive into the surgery from the point of view of the ex “rock-doc” surgeon —and then Lethem’s whole story kind of runs off the rails. Although the tone remains consistent, the writing full of witty dialogue and fabulous turns of phrase, it seems to devolve into a potpourri of pot-heads and politicos dreaming up and acting out hairbrained schemes of destruction.


GOING OFF the rails is one of things Jonathan Lethem is known for. He is often associated with a gang of critically acclaimed writers who in the 1990s started shaking up the more linear, realistic works of such writers as Raymond Carver. The group includes David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay), and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), all of whom adopted an eclectic, freewheeling approach to the structure and form of fiction, and riddled their texts with references to pop culture.

Lethem doesn’t hesitate to cross or mix genres, take bizarre turns, use surreal elements, and employ influences from both high and low culture: Comic books, TV, film, and music are all part of his well-woven literary fabric. In Gambler’s Anatomy, for instance, Bruno wears a t-shirt purchased at the Death Star that shows a picture of Jeff Bridges from the film The Great Lebowski with the word “abides” -- one of the “dude”’s expressions from the film -- and Stolarsky calls Bruno “Flashman” because in high school Bruno turned him onto George MacDonald Frazier’s novels from the 1960s and ’70s featuring this early 19th-century character.

Lethem, in short, draws from anything that grabs his interest. In a New Yorker article, he talks about Lewis Carroll, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, Stanley Kubrick, Italo Calvino, Rod Serling, the Talking Heads, and the surrealist artist Giorgio deChirico.

In his nonfiction books, he writes about how he consumes culture, obsesses over it, personifies it, deconstructs it, and makes it his own. Lethem reports seeing Star Wars twenty-one times in 1977, and thoroughly exploring every aspect of John Ford’s 1956 Western, The Searchers -- the director, the actors, and how the movie was put together -- so he could reconstruct it as his own. (He doesn’t know why it struck such a chord.)

His primary influence, though, was the prolific science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), whose dark, hallucinatory, paranoid stories about robots, mind control, and government conspiracies were surprisingly prescient. Dick, too, was obsessive about his interests and drew his characters with a rawness and pathos that begs to be heard.

Born in 1964, Lethem started out basically as a sci-fi writer, with books that included Gun, with Occasional Music, a 1994 crime/sci-fi mashup that includes talking animals, and Girl In A Landscape  (1998), about the coming of age of a Brooklyn girl on a distant planet inhabited by “Archbuilders.”

Another novel, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), spoofs Don DeLillo, whose White Noise takes place in Academia. As She Climbed tells the story of a particle physicist who creates a black hole and then falls in love with it, leaving her boyfriend to fight it out with this “Void.”

Other novels before Gambler’s Anatomy include Dissident Gardens, a 2013 exploration of three generations of women in a communist Jewish family. Lethem has also produced books of essays and short stories.


JONATHAN LETHEM SAYS repeatedly in interviews that he had always thought he would be a marginal writer, laboring on the fringes, much like Dick, who was deeply tortured, never made much money, and was stuck in a corner of the sci-fi world. But Lethem has become a leader of a genre-bending band of no-longer-newish writers from the 1990s, and has won gobs of attention and numerous awards, including the prestigious McArthur grant, the Critics Circle Award, and various New York Times Best Books of the Year awards.

His breakout novel, published in 1999, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was Motherless Brooklyn. In this noir crime drama, the detective, Lionel Essrogg, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, is recruited from a local orphanage by a small-time gangster named Frank Minna. Minna calls Essrogg “Freakshow,” but is gruffly kind to him and becomes his father- figure. When Frank gets killed, Essrogg is determined to solve the crime. His Tourette’s-induced tongue-twisters are hilarious, yet his deep humanity and the pain of his struggle is profoundly poignant. This book is Lethem’s tightest, most straightforward novel. As Lethem has said, it stands on its own without him.

His next book (2003), The Fortress of Solitude (the name of Superman’s lair), is the opposite. It needs him. It’s basically a fictionalized autobiography about growing up white in the black and brown neighborhood of Gowanus, Brooklyn during the 1970s, just as it is about to gentrify into Boerum Hill. The writing is intimate and immediate, hurtling the reader to the cracked sidewalks and melting asphalt of a summer street in a neglected urban neighborhood.

For example, as they play stoopball against an abandoned building: “[T]he spaldeen shot into the sky. A dark smudge wobbled to describe the pink ball’s torque against the background of the sun-stained leaves.” Or in the brownstone’s backyard: a “squirrel ribboned around the tree.”

Lethem’s stand-in is Dylan Ebdus, whose lefty Jewish mother insists he go to public school, where he is bored and victimized routinely, relentlessly hit up for lunch money to the point where he starts carrying around extra cash. He learns that to own something, like a bottle of Yoo-Hoo, means to hide it or someone will talk it off you.

He becomes friends with a neighbor, Mingus Rude. The two boys share a love of music, comic books, stoop-ball and graffiti writing. Dylan’s mother runs off, and Dylan’s father remains in his third-floor fortress of solitude painstakingly painting cells for an indistinct art movie he’s making. Dylan inhabits his own fortress of solitude as a white boy in a diverse world.

Fortress is a strong and beautiful book, but when Dylan grows up and goes off to “Camden College” in Vermont, where he is the closest thing to being black, and later moves to Berkeley, the novel flags a bit. It lacks the same vividness and immediacy of his childhood and adolescence.

Johnathan Lethem grew up in the very house and neighborhood he describes in Fortress of Solitude. He lived in a lefty, artistic household/commune, where people were coming and going all the time. His father was a gregarious avant-guard artist. His mother, a writer and community activist, died of a brain tumor when Jonathan was just 13.

He later dropped out of studying art at Bennington and landed in Berkeley, where he began writing and worked in a book store. He became extremely erudite about books, known and unknown.


LETHEM’S SAYS that he wanted to write a book about gambling, he says, but poker was too clichéd, so he schooled himself in backgammon. He claims A Gambler’s Anatomy to be a book without an agenda, written just for him. He told a Newsweek interviewer that “an abiding interest in superficiality” drove him to write it.

That superficiality comes through in Bruno, who never seems to know who he is. He is a solitary construction of a person, who has learned to be an “alluring cipher” and, who, despite great intelligence, thinks of himself as “no one with nothing to hide.” But Jonathan Lethem always knows how to turn a sentence and pack a book with hugely entertaining detail. And while Lethem is hardly a cypher, he, too, like many of us, never loses sight of a void inside, and the many masks that each person constructs to live in the world.


Pam Black, freelance writer and artist living in New Yor, has been published in numerous journals and newspapers, including Business Week and the New York Times Magazine.