Queens: The NYC Melting Pot
One of the notable things about Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens” is that it’s set in Queens, the New York City borough that is one of the world’s great melting pots. I’m going to talk about other books set in Queens – how’s that for a specialized list!? But first I want to talk about Jonathan Lethem’s breakout book, “Motherless Brooklyn,” which was set in Queens’ sister borough of Brooklyn, another jumpin’ NYC neighborhood.
This 1999 book was a detective story, but much more. Lethem’s protagonist, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder marked by involuntary tics. He works at a small-time detective agency, and when the owner is stabbed to death, the story takes off. Lionel is an immensely appealing character,and his search for his mentor’s killer will really have you in its thrall. The New York Times said of this book: “Motherless Brooklyn immerses us in the mind’s dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle.” I am told that a movie version of “Motherless Brooklyn” will be released in the near future – stay tuned, as we say in the TV business.
OK, back to Queens.
As I mentioned, Queens is a real melting pot, and it’s very interesting how many of the books I found are by immigrants or their descendants.
The first is “Native Speaker,” the 1995 novel by Chang-Rae Lee. This is a very intriguing novel by Lee, who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea at age 3.
It tells the story of Henry Park, also the son of Korean immigrants, who assimilates into America and pursues a very odd career – he works for a NYC sort of “dirty tricks” firm that hires first-generation Americans to spy on the immigrant communities they come from,. His ability to infiltrate is tested when he is assigned to spy on a popular Korean-American city councilman from Flushing, Queens. The councilman is considering being the first Asian-American to run for mayor of New York; Mr. Park’s unnamed employers want to keep the councilman from getting that far. Park’s insider-outsider-spy status enables Lee to examine so many facets of the immigrant experience of assimilation; it’s already become a classic.
Another work of fiction that looks at the recent immigrant experience and is partially set in Flushing, Queens is “A Good Fall,” the 2009 story collection by Chinese-American writer Ha Jin. The author uses his background to look at the tough and narrow road immigrants must follow into assimilation, from money woes to the clash of generations, as the younger set becomes more folded into the ways of America and the older group retreats into memory. These are tough, bleak stories, but their short form might be a good introduction to this fabulous writer.
And now we come to a view of Queens from the eyes of another immigrant group: Russian-Americans. “What Happened to Anna K” by Irena Reyn is an audacious effort; the author takes the story of Anna Karenina, the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy, and transports it to the Russian immigrant community in contemporary Queens. Instead of meeting a Russian Count (Vronsky) and falling fully and fatally in love with him, Anna K.’s undoing is a guy named David Zuckerman, who she meets while waiting for a train.
The book totally immerses you in the community; reviews note that like the original book, the first part is breathtaking while the second becomes progressively more grim, as Anna destroys her marriage and leaves her family for a love match that can’t have any future. Knowing the original story may be a double-edged sword; it’s fun to look for the parallels, but you may not become as attached to Anna K. as you did to the clueless romantic Anna Karenina.
Now I’m going to astonish you with my razor sharp memory, or at least the little bit that’s left of it. The Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, a children’s series that gave me many happy hours as I read and reread each one about ten times, was set in Flushing, Queens, in an era when there were a lot more sun-drenched meadows and horse-mad boys than there are now. And I must once again put in a plug for a movie: Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of “The Black Stallion” is simply one of the best and beautiful movies ever made, for kids, grownups and everybody in between.