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The Williamsburg Trilogy

In the spirit of our Portland-Brooklyn issue, today’s L&F is a tribute to Daniel Fuchs’ Williamsburg trilogy, from the man who literally wrote the book on (motherless) Brooklyn. Since this was first written, the trilogy has been reissued by Black Sparrow Press.

There’s nothing on my shelf I flip open for inspiration as often these days as Daniel Fuchs’ three novels about Brooklyn, set and written in the 1930s: Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company.  They were last reprinted in 1961 in one volume by Basic Books as 3 Novels (I noticed two copies on the Strand shelves last week, hurry!), then in paperback from Berkley Medallion in 1965 — a moment of rediscovery now as forgotten as the original publication.  Fuchs published in The New Yorker, was a buddy of Cheever’s at Yaddo, and somewhere John Updike compared him to Willie Mays for the ease of his effects, but unlike Willie Mays he’s nearly vanished from the record books.  In the Williamsburg trilogy his grittily enchanted, Dickensian vision of Brooklyn bubbles forward on a jetstream of vernacular babble — his characters jabber in poetry, compressed and glinting, warmer than Don DeLillo’s Bronx argot in Underworld, less tragic and neurotic than that of Henry Roth’s Lower East Side Jews in Call It Sleep, but worthy of them both, and of the sprawling, teeming immigrant culture he made his subject.  Fuchs’ Williamsburg is full of Communists and bookies, wanna-be Edisons hoping to make a fortune, young lovers trysting in McCarren Park on hot nights, Talmudic scholars, jewelers, and crooks — he wrote a world, now a lost world.  On plot summary, two of the three books would seem crime novels, but the muddled schemers and righteous bullies Fuchs depicts are embedded in his fundamentally comic vision of endurance and suffering, their outbursts of brutality falling like weather or fate.  Fuchs’ genius is for the unlikely reverie stolen in a moment of outward tumult, for the glint of sunlight between tenement roofs, the marriage proposal whispered under a screaming neighbor’s window, the trapped butterfly thrilling a sweaty carload of subway passengers.  His sensitivity to the place of the movies in his city dwellers lives — my favorite is the ten-year-old who’s in love with Marion Davies — as well as his talent for dialogue, probably made Fuchs’ defection to Hollywood inevitable.  He spent most of his career there, resurfacing to write sweetly humble introductions to the republished volumes, then one last novel in 1971.  A natural.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of Motherless BrooklynThe Fortress of SolitudeChronic City, and You Don’t Love Me Yet. His most recent book is Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, an unpacking of his obsession with the Talking Heads for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series.

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