Dissident Gardens NPR coverage of Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Dissident Gardens

Dissident Gardens

by Jonathan Lethem

Hardcover, 366 pages, Random House, List Price: $27.95 |


Buy Featured Book

Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

Lethem's multigenerational saga focuses on two extraordinary women: Rose, a tyrannical Communist who terrorizes her neighborhood with her absolute beliefs, and her daughter Miriam, who embraces the counterculture of Greenwich Village.

Read an excerpt of this book

Awards and Recognition

4 weeks on NPR Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List

NPR stories about Dissident Gardens

In These 'Gardens,' The Tree Rings Of The Radical Left

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/220722094/221821895" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For Novelist Jonathan Lethem, Radicalism Runs In The Family

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/220660674/220694147" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Dissident Gardens

1. Two Trials

Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.

Sol Eaglin, Important Communist, had rung her telephone. A "committee" wished to see her; no, they'd be happy, delighted, to come to her home, this evening, after their own conference just across the Gardens — was ten too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Sol knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn't stay long.

How did it happen? Easy. Routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now, after so long, Rose's turn. She'd cracked the kitchen window to hear their approach. Brewed some coffee. Sounds of the Gardens filtered in, smokers, lovers, teenagers sulking in the communal lanes. Though winter's dark had clamped itself over the neighborhood hours ago, this early November night was uncannily balmy and inviting, last pulse of the earth's recollection of summer. Other kitchen windows were spilled to the lanes, voices mingled: Rose's plentiful enemies, fewer friends, others, so many others, simply tolerated. Yet comrades all. According Rose their respect even through their dislike. Respect to be robbed from her by the committee now entering her kitchen.

There were five, including Eaglin. They'd overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment. In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship. And the taking of dictation. Still, Rose sought to be forgiving. These men were too young, apart from Eaglin, to have survived like she had the intellectual somersaults of the thirties, the onset of European Fascism and of the Popular Front; they'd been children during the war. They were drones, men costumed in independent thought who'd become slaves of party groupspeak. None mattered in this room except the sole independent or thoughtful among them, a true and famous organizer, after all, a man of the factory floors, Sol Eaglin. And Rose Zimmer's former lover. Eaglin in his bow tie, hairline now gone behind his high cranium's arc like the winter's sun setting. Eaglin the only among them man enough not to meet her eye, the only to grasp anything of the shame of it.

Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual: the living-room trial, the respectable lynch mob that availed themselves of your hospitality while dropping some grenade of party policy on your commitment, lifting a butter knife to slather a piece of toast and using it in passing to sever you from that to which you'd given your life. Yet that it was Communist habit and ritual didn't mean these boys were good at it, or comfortable: Rose was the veteran. She'd suffered one such trial eight years ago. They sweated; she felt only exhaustion at their hemming and throat-clearing.

The oil painting made small talk. One leaned over and noodled with Rose's Abraham Lincoln shrine, the small three-legged table bearing her original six-volume Carl Sandburg, a photograph of herself and her daughter at the memorial's statue in D.C., propped in a little frame, and a commemorative fake cent-piece the circumference of a slice of liverwurst. The young man was fair, like Rose's first husband — her only husband, yet Rose's brain persistently offered this slippage, as though some next life lay before her, waiting to be enumerated. The man hefted the medallion and tilted his head idiotically, as if being impressed with the weight of the thing constituted a promising avenue of discourse.

"Honest Abe, then?" he said.

"Put it down."

He produced an injured look. "We're aware you're a civil rights enthusiast, Mrs. Zimmer."

It was typical of such an evening that every remark found itself getting to the point, whether it wished to or not. Here was the crime the party had invented for Rose, then: excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality. In the thirties she'd been what would later be called, by Red-baiters, a premature anti-Fascist. Now? A too-sensuous egalitarian.

"I had a few slaves," said Rose, "but I freed them." At best, a poke at Sol Eaglin. Certainly lost on the young man.

Eaglin stepped in, as he'd been destined to all along, to "handle" her. "Where's Miriam tonight?" he asked, acting as though his knowledge of her daughter's name mitigated his incongruous presence in Rose's life: neither friend nor foe, despite that they'd a hundred times groped at each other's forms in the darkness. Eaglin was a mere bland operative, an automaton of party policy. Tonight was definite proof, like she'd needed proof. You could harbor a man in your bed or your body, play on his nervous system like Paderewski at the keyboard, and not shift his brain one inch out of the concrete of dogma.

Or, for that matter, the concrete of police work.

Nor, incidentally, had she dislodged either man from his wife.

Rose shrugged in reply. "At the age she's reached I shouldn't ever know her location, apparently." Miriam, the prodigy, was fifteen. Having skipped one grade already she was a high-school sophomore, and a virtual runaway. Miriam lived in other families' homes and in the dining hall at Queens College, flirting with Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual phonies, boys who'd a year or two before been scratching their nuts and slapping one another with rolled-up comic books on spinning stools in soda fountains or on the elevated trains, the kind of boys who fell silent, who even quaked, when they shared sidewalks with Rose Zimmer.

"Playing footsie with Cousin Lenny?"

"Sol, the one thing I can say with assurance is she's anywhere but with Cousin Lenny." It was Rose's second cousin Lenin Angrush who'd in fact gifted Rose with the bogus giant penny. A numismatist, he called himself. Lenny, getting the time of day from fifteen-year-old Miriam? He could dream.

"Let's not waste any more time," suggested the young man who'd been at her Lincoln stuff. Rose shouldn't underestimate the brutal authority of youth: He had some. Eaglin wasn't the sole power in the room just for being the sole power Rose chose to acknowledge. This young fellow was eager to distinguish himself, likely in the context of some jousting with others present, for status as Eaglin's protégé. That itself, only a prelude to stabbing Eaglin in the back. Surely that was it.

Poor Sol, really. Still neck-deep in the paranoid muck.

Rose poured them coffee, this brave cohort who'd come to declare she'd picked the wrong Negro. They were talking; she really ought to listen to the verdict. Short of severing the affiliation, Rose would no longer be welcome to the privilege of acting as recording secretary at meetings with union officials, including the union at her own workplace, Real's Radish & Pickle. Her last duty in the party, stripped. There at Real's, Rose enjoyed the honor of serving in horrified silence as her ham-fisted comrades bullied workers whose daily facts, whose solidarities, forged side-by-side plunging elbow-deep in barrels of chill salt brine, put to shame the abstractions of the posturing organizers, those arrayed in their dapper suspenders and unwrinkled plaid, not knowing enough to be unashamed of these Halloween-hayride proletarian costumes.

These men in her apartment, they could needless to say go to hell.

Yet Rose's usual fury was inadequate to the occasion. This kitchenful of moral bandits, even Eaglin, appeared to her sealed in distance, voices dim. The room's events unspooled before her as if scripted, something happening not to her but to another. A one-act play, worthy of Sunnyside's Socialist theater troupe, set in Rose's kitchen and starring her body — her body's behaviors being the matter under disputation — but no further portion. Heart, if bosom contained one anymore, not in attendance. Rose no longer here. This excommunication something that had already long ago been concluded. She warmed and refilled coffee, gracing the lynch mob with use of her mother-in-law's Meissen china, even while they alluded, in terms just oblique enough to salve their own shame but not hers, to Rose's sex life. Presumed to tell her who to fuck. Who not to fuck, exactly. Or, not to fuck at all. Not to make her own bedroom solidarities with men who, unlike themselves, had the stature and self-possession to want her, to be undeferential to Rose.

For these occupiers of her kitchen, even in their executioner's errand, were pathetically deferential: to Rose's force, to her history, to her chest twice the circumference of theirs. She who'd marched in protest of Hitler's New York birthday party on Fifth Avenue, while American brownshirts pelted her with rotten vegetables. She who'd marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves. Bringing revolution to Negroes, fine. To have one particular black cop in her sheets, not so fine. Oh hypocrites! Their incessant, mealy-mouthed usage, again and again droning out of the fog of their talk, was "associations." They were troubled by her associations. They meant, of course, the association of her rapidly aging Jew Communist vagina with the black lieutenant's sturdy and affectionate penis.

Yet Rose took orders like a mad lobotomized waitress: A little milk, or cream? With sugar? Oh, you like it black, perhaps? So do I. Her tongue stayed stopped, wit unexpressed. A recording secretary, she recorded. Shorthanded her own tribunal as she would that of another, onto some distant mind's tablet. Shorthand, even mental shorthand, an act of fingers scratching at some page barely registered by the mind itself. Here's Rose Zimmer, née Angrush, the scourge of Sunnyside, she who ought to be punching like a boxer against the elastic shadows that filled her kitchen, these ghastly shades of doctrine, and she couldn't care. This second trial was, really, only a lousy parody of the first. That first one, that had been something. Then, Rose was important in American Communism. Then, she'd been importantly Communistically married, about to be importantly Communistically divorced. Then, she'd been young. She wasn't anymore.

Now mental pen quit scraping mental tablet. Rose receded even further from the events before her, a present life under assault of disarrangement. "Eaglin?" she said, interrupting some droning insinuation.

"Yes, Rose?"

"Come outside."

The nervous glances that ensued, Eaglin quelled, using his brow like an orchestra conductor would a wand, to cease his players' tuning. And then he and Rose stepped outside, into the air of the Gardens.


The ashtray was a pure fetish: obloid, smooth-polished black granite, weighing enough to use as a stop against a pressure-hinged door or indent a man's skull. Finding it full yet again of Pall Mall stubs, you'd lug it to the kitchen with both hands to overturn it in Alma Zimmer's trash. Then rinse it in the sink, for Alma, Rose's unwilling mother-in-law, had made it plain she liked to see it come back gleaming again — never mind that three or four smokers, Albert's comrades, might be waiting to stub by the time you returned. Imagine making room for that ashtray in your bags as you fled Lübeck! Alma had done so. Who knew who'd hoisted that baggage, whose wrists the ashtray and the load of paper-wrapped Meissen had strained? Surely not Alma's. Porters, Rose supposed, and when no porter was available, Alma's brother, Lukas, or Alma's son, Albert. Albert Zimmer. Rose's future husband, a rich Jew deluded he was German even as the Nazis marched.

And who could say what other treasure had been left behind, in favor of these things? The ashtray, souvenir of Alma's deceased husband's bank desk, was a chunk of German reality, imported against absurd obstacles, to prove the unreality of Alma's present circumstance. That being: Broadway and Ninety-Second, the Knickerbocker Apartments. A one-bedroom on this island of Manhattan, furnished conspicuously with what could be saved apart from the ashtray, the half set of china, a crucial framed photograph or two (showing Alma among cousins, on Alpine vacations, they might as easily have been Nazi memorabilia to Rose's eye), Viennese-lace curtains. An apartment less a home than a memorial to the life abandoned. Two windows staring onto Broadway traffic to replace a house placed high enough in Lübeck's posh district to give panoramas of both river and mountains, next door to none other than the family home of Lübeck's great scion Thomas Mann, the Buddenbrooks house. Alma and her banker had more than once conversed with the visiting author, across the distance of two back porches. Another life. Before exile. Alma, formerly an opera singer on Lübeck's greatest stages. Alma, flower of Lübeck. (Rose got her fill of this word, this holy name, Lübeck.) More German than German, barely Jew at all until the degraded sons of Bavaria had wrenched the nation to pieces. All this is what that ashtray knew, up to and likely including the exact sums Alma had used to buy herself and her brother, Lukas, and her son, Albert, escape to New York, at that last minute when, after the approaching nightmare had induced the banker's heart attack, Alma's and Albert's denial had been torn from them: Jew, not German. Alma had had to sell it all, maybe was lucky even to keep the ashtray.

Here at the Knickerbocker was the "parlor," the sole public room, really, where, sitting over cups of tea, Rose abased herself to Alma's contempt in order to win grudging approval to marry. Albert was that much a mother's boy. Here, the same room, Rose had then learned to open her voice at serious Communist meetings, to smoke and argue with the men, while Alma, sealed in her aristocratic German, unwilling or unable to learn English, had, gratifyingly, been reduced to a hostess for their cell's meetings. And here, spring of '47, was the site of Rose's first living-room trial, the one that mattered, that changed everything. The meeting where, with classic party perversity, Albert, wrongly accused of spying when he was only an incompetent blabbermouth, was made a spy. The trial in which Albert was aided and abetted in flight from his family, his wife and seven-year-old daughter, by the party.

Where was Miriam? Right there. The daughter Albert was abandoning was the whole while in Alma's bedroom. She sat through the trial as she'd sat through previous meetings, gobbling the foil-wrapped Mozartkugeln Alma always provided the granddaughter with whom she couldn't converse in English, only coo at, to the solitary child's increasingly evident boredom. Miriam sat amid a litter of the unwrapped foil, playing quietly with her rag doll, likely smearing it with the German chocolate, and understanding, God help her, who knew how little or much of the things she overheard. The expulsion that would reverse-exile her father from New York, from America forever.

As for Rose, her voice wasn't for once available to be overheard. Knowing, that day, that if she spoke she'd scream, Rose never said a word that would have given Miriam, as she listened from the next room, the least alarm. Nothing to alert her that this meeting was out of the ordinary, that the party men were handing down anything other than Albert and Rose's next irritating errand, the next recalcitrant shop steward or union chief to pester with their pamphlets and talk, the next cultural gathering to uselessly infiltrate. If anything alarmed the seven-year-old girl, it would have been the absence of her mother's voice.

The voice that crosscut through every room and situation, the voice never stilled, for once stilled.

If anything alarmed Miriam, it certainly would have been this: the absence of her mother's voice even when her mother paused in the doorway, on a trip bearing the unbearable ashtray from kitchen to parlor, and hovered there, stared at the girl with tight lips, possibly moist eyes though she'd have disclaimed this, then leaned to fondle her daughter's head, to mold her hand along the darling skull to the small hairs at the neck. Spoke not a word, most uncharacteristically, about the minefield of foil. Instead, still clutching the ashtray like a bludgeon, impulsively grabbed at one of the few remaining Mozartkugeln, bared it of wrapper, and grimacing, gobbled it whole, then stepped from the doorway still unspeaking, to return the ashtray to its place before any smoker's ash grew unsupportably long.

If the girl recalled it — unlikely — it would have been the sole instance in a lifetime that she'd seen a piece of German chocolate cross her mother's lips.

From that day it would be just the two of them, mother and daughter, in the Gardens apartment.

In Rose's constellation of memory, this was Ursa Major, the real trial. Something of which to be mordantly proud: that the top men in New York Communism had taken notice of Albert and decided he needed correction, needed to be adjusted, from the status of dissolute husband and father, a Commie lush conducting "meetings" at McSorley's tavern — where he'd been overheard by visiting undercover Soviets! — and pressed into service overseas. Returned to Germany, where his courtly manners made him an asset instead of a sore thumb. A dandy Jew with a trace of German accent tainting his English? Not of such terrific value to an American Communist Party looking to get folksy with the workers. A native German with impeccable English and total dedication, willing to repatriate? Of maximal attractiveness to the new society forming in the ragged shadows and rubble.

So Albert was sent to become an East German citizen and spy.

Rose could really savor the pomp and menace of the committee who'd come to Alma's little parlor to drink tea and put the seal on the destruction of her marriage. She could shroud herself properly in this memory, of the trial that had cost her everything, sent her slinking back to her candy-store peasant family to admit that no, you couldn't hold a man, couldn't, at last, keep that posh refugee. See? Rose's marriage, minus God, had flopped. And so she'd been cast into her life's purgatory: Real's Radish & Pickle, single-motherhood, and Queens without Manhattan, exile to that suburb of the enraged. And Albert Zimmer escaped back to Europe. What was Rose's failed marriage except evidence, against the whole fable of American history, that European chains could never be shrugged off?


And what, after all, were Albert Zimmer and Rose Angrush but an implausibility briefly entertained? Tolerated for an instant before being demolished, dismantled from at least three directions at once: her family, his family, and the party. The high assimilated German joining up with Rose the Polack, Rose the Russian, Rose the immigrant, second-generation Brooklyn Jew? Unlike every comedy ever devised by Jewish writers mocking class difference from the sanctuary of Hollywood, these were divisions that exactly couldn't be closed by the bonds of love. This wasn't screwball, it was you're screwed. Not It Happened One Night but It Happened Never.

How came it even to attempt happening?

Simple. At a packed meeting hall near Gramercy Park, under a high ornate ceiling echoing with voices, a mole met a mole. Rose seated there, on one side, in one creaky wooden folding chair; Albert seated here, across the room, in the same sort of chair. Both seeking to take the meeting's floor, to steer its innocence and idealism in a given direction, both eager to run back to their contacts and brag of enlisting the group, and both obstructed, largely, by the other. Oh, it was ripe: Albert and Rose discovered each other because they'd been assigned, by their separate and poorly coordinated cells, to insinuate themselves into the same organization, the Gramercy Park Young People's League. To introduce the possibility of solidarity with the coming workers' revolution into this vague, well-intentioned gathering.

Both therefore forced, at some point, to bite a tongue and hear the other. Until, as they tussled for dominance in pursuit of an identical outcome, some other form of tussle emerged in the thinking of both, and the hall's other occupants melted away into irrelevance. Albert thinking: Who is this young Emma Goldman, this zaftig Brooklyn shtetl girl in the hand-sewn dress, covering the Yiddish parts of her speech with elegant rhetoric, with comical double-feature at the Loew's Britishisms? Rose thinking: Who is this fair Germanic professorially handsome fellow in suspenders and gold-rimmed glasses — and can he possibly be, as he claims in his speech, Jewish? This was, you did have to admit, screwball comedy, but such as no Red-leaning Jew playwright, vamoosed to Hollywood, would ever dare committing to paper: Sent to convert the Young People of Gramercy, the two lost sight of their marks, becoming each other's marks instead.

Their infatuation was above all a meeting of two intellects gleaming with the same exalted certainties, two wills emboldened by the same great cause, and they were still uncovering this extent of their political sympathies (though "political" was too limited a term, insufficient to describe what joining the greatest movement of human history had done for their sense of what life itself was for), gabbing a mile a minute, barely able to stop talking to eat the food that sat cooling on the table where she'd cooked it for him in the kitchen of his flat, or to sip the wine they'd poured but in their intoxication with the cause hardly needed, when Albert first unbuttoned her dress and his trousers. So the tussle, begun in full public view, now was consummated behind closed doors.

For a little while, Rose and Albert lapsed in their attendance to all urgencies, except those of a cell of two. Two fronts moving as one. Full synthesis achieved and lost on a nightly basis.

Then, when Rose missed three menstruations, married. What could be so wrong? They were two Jews. Two humans. Two believers in revolution. In the eyes of anyone but their families, a matched pair. Any "real American" would have heard his German accent as close kin if not identical to her parents' Yiddish. He was fair and she was dark, sure. But spiritually, they could be taken for brother and sister. Certainly Albert and Rose found themselves allied utterly, proudly so, in the glance of any hater of Jews or revolutionists. Wouldn't the cause soon erase all such distinctions of class and creed and race, weren't enlightened and secular Communists abandoning inhibition to mate furiously with goyim, female comrade seeking camaraderie with male comrade whether Irish or Italian or otherwise? Wasn't any child seeded across some obsolete boundary or prohibition an ideal mongrel citizen of the future world every comrade ought to seek to bring into being?

Try telling it to the Jews. At their futzed-together, hasty wedding (which nevertheless had no reason not to be as sweet as their own private love still could be in that time) (never mind how soon that time had been destined to pass) (never mind the appetites that had been lit in Rose in that brief interval) (never mind, never mind), Alma and her brother high-hatted the Angrush clan, that whole chaotic array of Rose's sisters and their husbands and their broods, the innumerable cousins, as though the shtetl progenitors had been summoned to populate a Brooklyn they'd been mistakenly informed was vacant of Jews. Alma and her brother, the vain and elderly and most probably inverted Lukas, treated Rose's family like the servants they'd been forced to terminate just before fleeing Lübeck. The Zimmers, the progressive, the enlightened, the worldly Zimmers, in the face non-German Jews, semireligious Jews, village Jews, felt their own place instantly: above them. This union was not what world revolution was meant to make possible, thank you very much!

Then, as if to prove that the cosmos wanted no such union, the pregnancy lapsed, in the privacy of night leaking out of Rose in gobs and streams, so discreetly she was left to explain it to Albert herself, just weeks after the wedding. That, only after a doctor explained it to her, saying it hadn't been much of a pregnancy to begin with, if five months along it could dissolve more or less painlessly in the night. Something hadn't taken, only tried to. It was a mercy, a mitzvah even. Not to bear any longer the thing incompletely forming within her. Now, girl, eat red meat and salad, avoid exotic fruits such as bananas, and try again.

Try again? She bit her tongue. They hadn't been trying. He'd meant to pull out. Now, married, they'd try.

By now they'd settled, out of Manhattan, but not out of the heart of the world's happy controversies: no. Instead they'd made their home in the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs, Sunnyside Gardens. Designed, as they discovered, and ironically, on a German basis, Lewis Mumford borrowing from the Berlin architects' vision of a garden city, a humane environment grounded in deep theory, houses bounded around courtyard gardens, neighbors venting their lives one to another across a shared commons. Yet with such struggles as overtook Rose and Albert in that utopian zone, truthfully, they might wish to be a little better partitioned from their neighbors' overhearing. That first accord between them, had it only been a fever of hormones? Their marriage, only a panic of pregnancy, in the wake of brain-befogging stints of sheer fucking?

A baby would make it right.

They tried and tried.

Synthesis of this sort was denied them.

Four years of trying before his seed would take in her again and make Miriam. The girl arrived at the doorstep of the war, ready shortly to be assigned her own booklet of ration stamps. Born into a new world unresembling that nascent utopia in which Rose and Albert had sought to start a family, against the skepticism of two armies made of different species of Jewish uncles, aunts, and cousins. Would it have grounded the union to make issue earlier? Was Albert unmoored for want of a child at home?

No. Rose could revere, in her morbid way, the Kafkaesque penalty of her first trial because she knew the party was only putting something out of its misery after all. The marriage had failed. Wrecked on reefs of personality, the incongruity and nonsupport of the two alienated families, and on Albert's vanity, his uselessness to the task of anything but distant and unreachable revolutions. He was either above or beneath mere work: Given even a sheaf of pamphlets to distribute, you'd find them stuffed into his suit pockets, Albert's campaign to distribute them among the working classes having ended in some dialectical flirtation over drinks with a fellow pamphleteer he'd just happened to run into. As for the demands of parenting, once the girl came along, forget it. Rose had been a single mother before she was made a single mother.

The fact of which Rose was proudest was that one she'd never utter aloud, not to Sol Eaglin, not to her beautiful policeman, not even to Miriam, the daughter who was repository for Rose's whole self, her insurance against being forgotten. Yet it was her signature triumph: the containment of murder. Rose Zimmer emptied and rinsed the Lübeck ashtray three times during the course of her first trial. Ferrying the granite weapon back and forth through the crowded room, the smoky air, Rose didn't swing it to shatter Albert's cranium. Nor Alma's, which would have surely collapsed as easily as an eggshell, tight-combed and hairpinned white wisps drowning in blood as she fell to the carpet. Nor did Rose crown any of the high party operatives. No, though they made it so easy, leaning in lusciously to plop sugar into their teacups, bending to stuff lit matches into mossy pipe bowls, no, though it would have been so beautiful to watch them riot in fear of her and her granite boxing glove. Nor did she go in and murder the newly fatherless girl, whose small body Rose would still have been able to hoist through the window to hurl down onto the pavement of Broadway, drawing cops to whom Rose would then immediately denounce the cell of Reds she'd uncovered (You gentlemen revolutionaries are sidelong-eyeing this peasant-stock housewife for a reaction? Well, there's your reaction!), no, no, no, on the night Rose Zimmer had discovered she possessed not only the capacity but the desire for murder, she'd let the most delectable array of possible victims go completely unmurdered. She'd killed not even one of them. She'd carried the ashtray out filthy and carried it back in as spotless as the best-paid Lübeck housekeeper could ever have made it.

Now that was a trial!


So here, the night of her real and final expulsion, on Rose Zimmer's back step she and Sol Eaglin were encompassed in a cool and fragrant evening, false escape from that pressurized, oxygenless kitchen. The innocent babble of voices rising through the Gardens wasn't innocent. The whole place was against her. A minor reference in Eaglin's original phone call had sunk in now. He'd said he and his group would be coming to her fresh from an earlier "meeting" — that elastic and ominous euphemism — to be held just across the way. No doubt, the meeting had concerned Rose directly. A neighbor had denounced her again. But who? Hah! The question, more likely, was which of her neighbors hadn't, by this time? Rose felt the force of this dead utopia, the whole of Sunnyside Gardens corrupted by the onrush of coming disappointment, seeking scapegoats for their stupid guilt at their wasted lives. Rose supposed she made a fair talisman for wasted life.

The Gardens was cold.

Could get colder still.

None among them there knew American Communism wouldn't wake from this particular winter. Oh, the beauty of it! After all Rose had seen and done, to be kicked out bare months before Khrushchev, at the Soviet Congress, aired fact of the Stalin purges. Bare months before rumor of his words leaked across the Atlantic to scald the ears of the devoted American dupes. Then the words themselves, translated in The New York Times. Think how sweet it would have been, to see the hound-eyes of the sober and pretentious executioners waiting inside, on that day. But no, exiling her would be their last glorious act, or at least the last she'd have to endure witness of, these superb indignant wraiths, men dead who didn't know it.

Tonight, none of them knew.

Again, Sol Eaglin made small talk, almost flirty now that they were alone. "How'd you meet this policeman of yours, Rose?"

"Unlike some who dwell only in a Moscow of their dreams, I'm a proud citizen of a locality that includes Italians, Irish, Negroes, Jews, and the occasional Ukrainian peasant. Aren't your people Ukrainian, Sol?"

He only smiled.

"My feet when they walk touch the sidewalks of Queens, they don't float above. My beliefs don't deliver me from a responsibility to the poor degraded human souls in front of my face."

"You mean doing your rounds? What's it called, the Citizens' Patrol?"

"That's right, the Citizens' Patrol." The two skated around facts Sol Eaglin obviously knew from her party dossier, the existence of which Sol would deny and which Rose would never be able to prove, yet believed in as a certainty, in the manner with which she had been raised to believe — but failed to believe — in an invisible Jehovah, or that her name was recorded somewhere in the Haggadah secreted in the shul's rosewood cabinet. Her dossier would have told him, undoubtedly, that Rose had begun her affair with the Negro police lieutenant after colonizing the nascent Sunnyside block-watchers' organization and appointing herself the liaison to the Sunnyside precinct house. Perhaps Sol imagined her participation in the Citizens' Patrol was a long ruse, designed to allow her to sidle up to a married man she'd already lusted after. Let Sol think what he wanted. Rose had never glimpsed Douglas Lookins before that day.

She lowered herself to a defense. "A neighborhood watch, Sol. Workers helping other workers, making them feel comfortable walking home from the el after a night shift."

"Some of us can't help being reminded of brownshirts, seeing civilians forming marching societies, whispering on street corners to men in boots."

"You'd like to provoke me into an act of despair or outrage, so you can make a report of my diminished value to the cause. Or more likely you've written this report already and are disappointed I haven't obliged you with a nervous breakdown."

"I haven't written any report." He spoke tightly, as though she were the one who'd crossed a line, referring too intimately to his subjugation to the unseen cell leader. For Sol Eaglin, that, rather than bodies meeting in the night, constituted intimacy.

"I'm done inside, Sol," said Rose, meaning the kitchen and elsewhere: inside all the implied philosophies and conspiracies that clung in the air around them, had been belched out when they came through the door like heat and fume when you opened a coal stove. "Take them away."

"You should permit us to follow procedure."

"Procedure for what? Looking at you, old man, I can see what the mirror won't tell me. I'm an old woman. I don't have time for it."

"You're a fine woman in her prime, Rose." Eaglin's tone wasn't persuasive. Who knew whom he didn't want to be heard by, in the nearby bushes?

"I'm a degenerate, to hear of it."

"Come now, Rose."

"No, it's a degenerate world now, so why wouldn't we be part of it, you and I and those idealists in my kitchen?" She stepped into his embrace, loathing them both and wanting him to feel her loathing, as well as to prove how easily still she could squirm her bosom into the palms of his hands. Eaglin gave her boobies a good feel before shoving both hands into his jacket pockets. The act might have fit his definition of procedure.

Yet she'd outwitted herself, wanted more than she knew. She took Sol by the wrists, this time forcibly inserted his chill palms within her blouse, let him rediscover how she spilled at the whole periphery of her brassiere. Rose's versatile cynicism was dangerously near to spilling, too, becoming irrecoverable, mercury in a shattered vial. Sol Eaglin knew her better than any man alive. Better than her black lieutenant, though she might die rather than let Sol know it. She and Sol had for nearly a decade suffered identical contortions: the party line, and each other. If she'd only managed to wrest him from the obedient disobedience of his marriage, to a meek woman suffering nobly his claim to free love, Rose might have imprisoned Sol happily. They could have installed themselves as a Great Red Couple, lording it right here in the Gardens — but how these fantasies reeked of conformism! How bourgeois, finally, the aspiration to succeed socially within the CP!

Be grateful, then, for Sol's limpet wife and for the instincts of the body that had led her to seek elsewhere. Rose was beyond Sol's destruction, being larger than Sol knew, much as Communism was larger than the party and therefore beyond the party's immolations, its self-stabbings. By reaching for her impossible policeman, her Eisenhower-loving giant, Rose had practiced a radicalism, a freer love than Sol Eaglin could know. The critique was implicit in the gesture. Yet she wasn't tempted to translate it all into Marxism for him, not at this late date. Rose might be slightly weary, at last, of Communism. Yet Communism — the maintenance, against all depredation, of the first and overwhelming insights that had struck the world in two and made it whole again, and in so doing had revealed Rose's calling and purpose — was the sole accomplishment of her life, short of balancing a pickle factory's books. It was also, and not incidentally, the sole prospect for the human species.

"I'm cold," she said. "Let's go inside."

"You're lying." Now Sol was turned on, getting a little humpy, she knew the signs. "You're not cold, you're hot as a baked potato."

"I won't argue, the world is founded on such contradictions. It's possible I'm all at once cold and hot and lying. But not lying as much as you, Sol."

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright 2013 (c) 2013 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House.