That Brooklyn Mystique

This weekend’s Brooklyn Book Festival was a breath of fresh air for downtown BK, and I’m pretty sure everybody who showed up was impressed by the turnout and the enthusiasm. I couldn’t even get into the room to see Jonathan Ames, Gary Shtuynegart and Ben Greenman, so thick was the crowd, but I did get to chat with Danny Simmons of Def Poetry who told me the good news that the show’s new season will be taping soon (I’m hoping to score an interview with him too). I also got my photo taken by Mary Reagan (that’s me in the purple shirt in the 4th one down, and you can also spot me in the staircase photo where I believe I’m watching Rick Moody or Carl Hancock Rux). I had a very pleasant day, and enjoyed talking with many friends.

I’m psyched to hear from Borough President Marty Markowitz that the festival will be a two-day affair next year. But I also feel ambivalent about the increasing use of Brooklyn as a catch-all literary symbol of some kind of “character” or mystique. I live in Queens, but my family’s roots in Brooklyn go back at least 150 years, so I feel I have some right to complain just a little bit when writers show up in Brooklyn and immediately start jumping the shark.

For instance, Paul Auster is truly a great modern author, but his two best works (New York Trilogy and Moon Palace) are set in Upper West Manhattan. Then Auster (a New Jerseyite) moves to Brooklyn and suddenly he goes all mushy and starts turning out awful stuff like the screenplays for Smoke and Blue in the Face, two films which in my opinion capture the meaning of the phrase “cute overload” better than all the kitten photos on the internet put together. These films were so bad, they made Harvey Keitel look lame, and that’s not easy to do. I’m deeply embarrassed that Brooklyn takes the blame for this kind of stuff, and I just want to point out again that the guy is from Jersey.

Then there’s Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, an alleged mystery that tries to glide by on smooth Brooklyn mystique just as Paul Auster’s two bad screenplays tried to glide by on cozy Brooklyn charm. These works fail to realize that a good work of art can’t get by on just Brooklyn. It’s got to have something else, like a plot, or memorable characters, or good jokes. At least that’s what I think — the world is full of Lethem fans, and some people even liked Smoke, so what the hell do I know, right?

Just as I hate mediocre works that take the borough in vain, I love the breakthrough works that get it right, like Spike Lee’s brilliant and beautiful She’s Gotta Have It (just think of that scene where Fort Greene Park bursts into color) or his Do The Right Thing, or Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners. Neil Diamond, Jay-Z, The Cosby Show, Barbra Streisand, Welcome Back Kotter. Did you know that Bugs Bunny was born in Brooklyn? (Just watch the episode where he tells his life story).

In the end, what is Brooklyn? Like Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island, the outer boroughs are where the service industry lived, and still lives. Plumbers, cab drivers, teachers, factory workers, receptionists, tailors, fry cooks, executive assistants — it’s this economic sector that makes Brooklyn Brooklyn. If you come out to visit Brooklyn, here’s what you’re going to find: a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot of apartment buildings. That’s really what Brooklyn amounts to, in the end. It’s residential through and through. Brooklyn doesn’t have “character” — it has a few million characters. Some of these characters don’t even live near a Starbucks.

Enough of my noise about this. Congrats to Marty Markowitz, Johnny Temple and everybody else who worked to make the Brooklyn Book Festival such a promising start. I have a feeling next year will be even better.

* * * * *

Here’s something everybody in Brooklyn (and Queens) can agree on: the New York Mets clinched at Shea Stadium tonight, for only the fifth time in the team’s history (there was 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1988; they rode a wild card to the World Series in 2000), and it’s a very happy night for all of 718. Yankers, bring it on.

10 Responses

  1. DefThat’s great news about

    That’s great news about Def Poetry. Ever since you turned me on to that show, I haven’t missed an episode. I hope you get to interview Danny Simmons. Hey, Levi, why don’t you try out for the show?

    Speaking of New York, I’ve always said that if I were to move anywhere, it would be NY. I probably wouldn’t stay in the city; I would get a place upstate with a little house and some land, and then drive 2 or 3 hours every weekend to visit places like the Bowery Poetry Club in the Village. This is what my wife and I did when we visited her grandparents in Coxsackie, NY (not far from Albany) and we had a great time! Well, back in those days, we didn’t know about the Bowery Poetry Club. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood. Lame? Perhaps, but at least we were in New York, baby! Just walking the streets was a blast!

    As long as we’re talking sports, my Jaguars beat the Steelers last night in, apparently, the lowest scoring game in NFL history. I just wanted to mention it.

  2. Glad to hear I helped turn
    Glad to hear I helped turn you on to Def Poetry, Bill. I don’t think the show is widely popular among poets, and I’m going to continue to champion it, because I think it’s one of the best things that’s been on TV in the last many years.

    Should I try out? I thought about it. There are two problems — first, I’d have to seriously work on my memorization, because reading from a chapbook doesn’t cut it on Def Poetry Jam, and you’ve got to have several full-length pieces ready to demonstrate if you show up to try out. Second, it would pretty much kill my role as the show’s premier online critic. I hope I can sit in the audience for one of the tapings, though.

    Congrats to your Jaguars! I have to ask, though, if you could check out this stat about the lowest scoring game in NFL history — 9-0? I don’t think you have this right. I’m sure teams have won 6-0, 3-0, I bet even 2-0. Can you fact-check this one?

  3. BrooklynSorry I missed seeing

    Sorry I missed seeing you at the Book Fair. I was one of the many who, along with you, couldn’t get in to the thing with Jonathan Ames & company, although I did talk to him afterwards.

    Did you see Emily Loubaton’s letter in Sunday’s City section of The New York Times responding to Sara Gran’s excellent “Booklyn” article from the week before? Emily wrote:

    I would like to point out that the real Brooklyn exists to the east of the literary mecca of Park Slope.

    I was born and raised in Flatbush, so when my friends, and even casual acquaintances, point out that I am “so Brooklyn” (usually after I pronounce coffee “cawfee”), I can say I agree, with even a hint of pride. The snooty writers and hipsters of Park Slope don’t have accents, don’t understand the diversity and cultural interchanges of (real) Brooklyn, and just piggyback off the glamour of the borough my great-grandparents discovered many decades ago when Brooklyn was anything but sexy. These new imports are just wannabes.

    “Someone thank the hipsters for their existential novels, but leave the boasting of borough pride and smugness to those who deserve it.

    Well, I think there are a lot of real Brooklyns. Yes, it’s full of apartments, but I grew up in a very suburban area of one- and two-family homes that was a 20-minute bus ride from the nearest subway station. I had a car when I was 18 and we had a swimming pool in our backyard and I used to go fishing a few blocks from my house.

    Yet I feel my experiences are pretty “Brooklyn” too. Most of my friends and I knew we were going to Brooklyn College (if we could get in and didn’t have to go to Kingsborough, the community college) from day one of high school. BC is where I met Marty Markowitz, who was a great politician 35 years ago when he was president of the Graduate Student Organization.

    I teach a lot of college students who live in East New York, Bay Ridge, Gerritsen Beach, Canarsie, New Lots, Flatlands, East Flatbush, Boro Park and Manhattan Beach, and for most of them, the idea that Brooklyn is some literary mecca is pretty startling.

    To me, the really interesting Brooklyn is what we would now call “non-brownstone Brooklyn.”

    And the Queens that I know is just as interesting. Staten Island’s not bad, either!

  4. one, two, three…1) nice
    one, two, three…

    1) nice picture of you!

    2) i must say that i liked “smoke” and “blue in the face” (smoke more than blue), but i admit that as someone who liked auster and waits, and enjoyed writing and smoking, i was biased, of course – and didn’t (and don’t) have an idea what the true brooklyn is about.

    3) the brooklyn book festival sounds like it was an impressing blend of words, vibes, and ideas, and i can imagine the inspiring atmosphere there. sounds a bit like the annual frankfurt book fair here in october, which, unfortunately, i can’t attend this year due to a mistake in scheduling i made. glad you went there, though, and thanks for reporting!

  5. Okay, here it is. Last night
    Okay, here it is. Last night was the lowest scoring Monday Night Football game. Not lowest scoring of all NFL games. You see, I never followed football until the Jaguars came along, except for maybe the Florida Gators because they have the coolest logo in college football. I always preferred watching my son play baseball. Now that he is 18 years old, I’m trying to get him to try out for the Jacksonville Suns but he won’t do it.

  6. With the US illiteracy rate
    With the US illiteracy rate in the double digits and the usual absence of literature on any American best seller list, literary mecca’s an oxymoron in the USA.

    Brooklyn would be in the top 5 for population in the USA and is respective of the US population and reading is uncool. Granted, Brooklyn’s physically closer to Manhattan publishing houses but the actual distance to publishing reality is just as far as anywhere else in the world. Being in NYC does mean that you’re closer to everything there but as two posters witnessed here, it is not so easy to get access to what is happening.

  7. Subway SeriesDon’t get too
    Subway Series

    Don’t get too cocky now, Mets fan.

    Enjoy your victory, ’cause it probably won’t last, hehe!

    Go Yanks!

  8. My book “Trouble in
    My book “Trouble in Flatbush”, a funny and adventurous book was recently published. If you go to my web site you will find a description of the book and its cover as well as the complete first chapter. There is also a link (on the About the Author page) to me reading the first chapter on YouTube. If you were ever 12 years old you will get a kick out of reading the book. At the minimum, take a look at the web site. You will probably chuckle — a reaction that many have had reading the book.

    Below is a short summary of the book. By the way, this book is 100% G-rated. It is suitable for young readers through seniors.

    Book Description:
    Trouble in Flatbush, is a book for all those who enjoy revisiting their memories of childhood urban life and for those who want to see an image of a different time. The reader is given a picture of 1948-50 Brooklyn and particularly Coney Island in stunning detail through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. This account is a meticulous and animated biography of place.

    Mid century Coney Island is long gone. The glamorous amusements parks have vanished. Luna Park with its Moorish towers burned down. Steeplechase with its iron horses became worn down and was subsequently torn down. But the images and adventures that took place there were burned into the memory of the author.

    As the book begins, the boy senses change in his family and seeks to discover the cause. Later, during a seedy show in the Midway of Coney Island he discovers the root of the trouble and at the same time graduates from the naive days of childhood.

    The voice of the 12 year old is funny and sweet. The adventures are tumultuous and the boy’s schemes invariably lead to intrigue and trouble. This book is for everyone, but anyone who lives in, or has ever lived in a big city, the book will have a special attachment. Trouble in Flatbush, Adventures of a 12 year old in Mid 20th Century Brooklyn, can be found on Further descriptions can also be seen on the author’s web site

    Author Bio:
    Arthur Levy was born, brought up and bar mitzvahed in Brooklyn. Living in a traditional Italian-Jewish neighborhood he perfected the values of guilt and blame. His writing skills were sharpened in Public School 226 by forging excuse notes from his father. When he traveled to upper Manhattan to attend the High School of Music and Art, he discovered that he was ethnic. After graduating from NYU and Dartmouth he received his PhD from the University of Virginia. It was there that he perfected the southern-Jewish-Italian accent. Although he tried to conceal his Brooklyn ethnic origins in the south, he was always revealed by the occasional “oy vey y’all” with an accompanying hand gesture.

    If there are any questions, please ask.
    Arthur Levy

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