Chez Shea à la Che: being a review of Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Although the name of infamous Marxist, Che Guevara, is not so much as mentioned even once in Jonathan Lethem's latest chronicle about a family of Queens, NY lefties, his homonym, Bill Shea  is. Shea, the New York lawyer, who along with Branch Rickey announced the formation of what would have been a third Baseball league in the early 1960's, the Continental League - if it wasn't ultimately absorbed into the National league with the assurance of a New York expansion team: the Metropolitans - and for whom Shea Stadium was named, becomes, because of his sound-alike Guevara, a fortuitous pun and convenient symbol for Lethem to employ in this story about, among other things, the withering defeat of the American radical left-wing.

In the world of sports, Shea Stadium had always loomed large in Flushing, Queens, its shocking blue and radio-active orange facade an in-your-face statement to the traitorous manifest destiny of the legacy clubs from Brooklyn and upper Manhattan. In Dissident Gardens, Lenny (short for Lenin) Angrush has a slightly different idea for the replacement baseball team . He lives, along with his second cousin Rose, in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, where - the Angrush family having transplanted their Russian Jewish roots to the outer boroughs earlier in the 20th century - he aspires, in the thrall of the American Communist Party, to pay tribute to the common worker with a team called the Sunnyside Proletariat ( the Pros for short). He goes to visit Shea equipped with a newly penned theme song for the proposed club. The team and theme both: enduring reminders of the working class's struggle over the power of wealth. Ah, what might have been.

In this paean to leftist New York politics and indeed progressive political dissent in general, Lethem is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. His main protagonist, Rose Angrush Zimmer is both a heroine and a disappointment; she's a cranky martyr, betrayed by her husband, daughter, grandson, the American Communist Party, you name it. She is a disappointment to all of the above and more. Rose carries on an extramarital affair with an African-American cop, Douglas Lookins; she fosteringly protects and defends his young son Cicero while having forced her own daughter's head into a gas flooded oven. In one of Lethem's more playful scenarios, Rose fantasizes a romantic encounter with Archie Bunker: "It's Like this Rose, a Jew and a Gentile don't have a Chinaman's chance" says Archie ingenuous in his bigotry. But Rose does not give up. "Can you not see I'm a subversive foremost and a Jew only negligibly? Very well, if it makes you hot, fuck a sorrow maddened Commie Jew lady." "Yeeeeeeeze...." replies Archie.

Rose's fiercely independent daughter, Miriam, marries Tommy Gogan, a Bob Dylan wannabe, a protest songwriter maybe more in the vein of Phil Ochs. They have a son, Sergius, whom they raise in a commune set in Alphabet City. But when they venture off to Nicaragua in search of real-life revolution not to mention great song material, Sergius is farmed off to a Quaker school in Pennsylvania. Later in life Miriam's Sergius and Rose's Cicero, now out of the closet and grossly overweight, reconnect in a second-generation attempt at reconciliation, both are now teachers carrying on their surrogate guardian's respective legacies. Though, in the end, Sergius becomes emblematic of vainglorious rebellion; imbuing the qualities of a kind of spiteful dissident.

During the Reagan years, Cicero liberates Rose from her nursing home bonds, and escorts her to a Met game at Shea (Che) stadium. Rose insists they sit in the "Upper level reserved, the cheap seats". "Up with God" she calls it. For Rose and Cicero, the game becomes a final bonding experience:
"It's not much but it's pretty good," said Rose.
"Why didn't we do this a long time ago?"
"We're doing it now."
Under the eaves of Shea, where the hapless Mets are losing again, the old Communist Rose Zimmer finds herself with some hope for redemption. But it's only hope, for months later she and Cicero discuss her personal theology. "God creates the world by going away from the world," She says, and goes on to explain that it is only by leaving that He creates enough space for life to occur. And with this, Lethem seems to say by analogy: Alas, what might have been if only the God of American Capitalism hadn't gotten in the way.

Title: Dissident Gardens
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (September 10, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385534930
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385534932