It could be seen as a betrayal. Jonathan Lethem, patron saint of South Brooklyn’s literati, has written a book based in, of all places, Los Angeles.
“I wanted to shake off the responsibility of being the ‘Faulkner of Boerum Hill,’ ” the author told GO Brooklyn last week. He was preparing to go away for the weekend, to rest a bit before he began the tour for the new book, “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” which was released on March 13.
“There was something mysterious and really evocative to me about that part of LA — Silver Lake and Echo Park,” he said. “I like places that are ill-defined bohemian frontiers, verging on gentrification — disputed terrains. There is a certain Brooklyn-ness to that.”
And he can’t really be faulted for trying to get away. Lethem lives on the same Boerum Hill block that he grew up on, and has built his reputation largely on books like “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Fortress of Solitude,” both highly praised works that are now standard issue for F train riders. That’s quite a burden to bear.
“You Don’t Love Me Yet” follows Lucinda Hoekke, a young musician who’s breaking up with her boyfriend/bandmate and has taken a job at “The Complaint Line,” an art project that finds her listening to callers’ grievances for hours on end.
“I [worked] in retail for more than 10 years before I was able to make a living as a writer,” said Lethem. “Working at a cash register, no matter what you’re supposed to be doing, one thing you’re inevitably doing is collecting complaints.”
These days, Lethem is not only making a living writing, but has Hollywood calling as well — actor Edward Norton is rumored to be fast-tracking a production of “Motherless Brooklyn,” and director Josh Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) is working on “Fortress of Solitude,” the screenplay for which Lethem and his wife Amy co-wrote. “I’m not in charge of film projects,” he told us. “It’s more that I take a check and give over the book to a filmmaker who has his own concept.”
Along these lines, Lethem posted a message on his Web site this week stating that he would sell the film rights to “You Don’t Love Me Yet” for just two percent of whatever the shooting budget becomes. His only other requirement is that after five years, the film’s ancillary rights must be released so they can enter the public domain.
“I realized that sometimes giving things away — things that are usually seen to have an important and intrinsic ‘value,’ like a film option — already felt like a meaningful part of what I do. I wanted to do more of it,” Lethem wrote on the site.
Finding meaning is definitely not the big issue for the restless young characters in “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” twentysomethings who jump from job to job and just happen to make music on the side.
“I wanted to remind myself of that weird, transitive, sketchy period in your 20s when everyone’s calling his own bluffs,” Lethem said. For inspiration, he used bands like Talking Heads, the Go Betweens and Fleetwood Mac — “bands with exes and complicated histories.”
Lethem himself is no stranger to the job-hopping hopelessness of a young, would-be artist. The worst job he ever had? “I once had to clean up after the elephants in a parade, [following] behind them in a clown suit and gathering up the elephant turds.”
How does one even find a job like that? “They needed a clown with a shovel, and I needed a job.” Luckily, that was just a one-afternoon gig.
Perhaps that experience led the writer to sympathize with Matthew, Lucinda’s sometimes-ex and a vigilante zookeeper who takes his problems at work — in addition to one of the animals — home with him.
“By the time I wrote ‘Fortress of Solitude,’ which I am immensely proud of,” said Lethem, “that book had a quality of being a collected oral history of the neighborhood, so I was baring a certain responsibility. This book is characterized by shucking that. That’s one reason why ignoring Brooklyn became important. It made me into a pretender and that’s what these characters are.”
In his day-to-day life, however, ignoring Brooklyn isn’t something he can seem to do. Lethem is currently the Chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Friends of BAM” program and also serves on the board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. Even protectors of the neighborhood flame, however, can find themselves with begrudging respect for some of Yuppiedom’s advantage — Lethem and his wife have “a crush” on Lunetta, a new restaurant on Smith Street featuring pasta dishes with double-digit price tags.
But he still has the fire in his belly about Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-project, despite recent setbacks. “It’s not a super encouraging time,” he said. “[The project] is a big mistake. It’s not just a sports [arena] and some housing — it’s this incredibly dense development of towers. To oppose that is not to be against development, but to say that this is really badly put together and to question why it’s been forced down the gullet of the borough instead of being built from the neighborhood’s interests up.”
And this is a guy who knows his neighborhood. “There are a lot of writers [in Brooklyn], so it’s not special to be one. I get to have my cake and eat it too because I’ve participated in this recent boom but also get to trump everyone with my street credibility card. I grew up on this block, and I wave hi to old neighbors who have been here forever. They don’t think of me as anything but that Lethem kid.”
They might be the only ones.
“You Don’t Love Me Yet” is available at BookCourt (163 Court St. at Dean Street in Cobble Hill) for $24.95. For information, call (718) 875-3677.
©2007 Community News Group
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