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.