Top critical review
Coulda Been a Contender
Reviewed in the United States on May 1, 2019
Jonathan Lethem set out to write a contemporary noir novel, one set in the New York City he knows, and in that light he has succeeded. Large cast of colorful characters? Check. Snappy bitten-off dialogue with lots of local references? Check. A good girl and a bad girl? Check. A killer giant? Check. A complicated plot that gets neatly summed up at the end? Check.
Then he throws in the kitchen sink. Japanese megafirms, Zen Buddhism, Prince... and a narrator with Tourette’s syndrome.
Does it work? Yes, if you want a fast read that’s well-written, with a likable protagonist. If you are interested in Tourette’s, for any reason. I have no idea if the speech and behaviors — the compulsive touching, the flapping hands, the triggers that start or end an attack — are realistic. They are certainly convincing.
So why three stars? Well — ultimately, it’s still piffle. Lethem is a skilled writer, capable of tossing off a memorable phrase or conjuring up a visual image, but his talents here are in the service of a lesser god. In other words, it’s genre. Colorful cardboard is still cardboard, which is how his characters start and end. Snappy dialogue out of the side of the mouth is a convention, just like the cars and the cigarettes and the Italian mama in a tiny slummy kitchen and the sad, incompetent NYPD detective — except that this time he’s African-American, big blow for originality. Not. The plot drags. The “zany” shtick — Buddhists! Monks! Japanese executives! — falls flat. Ok, cool, he dreamed it up, but what for? Zany needs a purpose.
Lethem’s love for the genre and its conventions shines forth from every page, and in many ways is one of the best things about this novel. He loved it; he ached to do it; he did it. For this reader, and I say this with regrets, the effect is like watching a brilliant impersonator. Reading a work of fiction should be something else entirely.