Jonathan Lethem is one of Brooklyn’s brightest literary stars. So what if he doesn’t live here now?
The author of “Motherless Brooklyn” left his home turf of Boerum Hill for a professorship at Pomona College in Southern California a half-decade ago. But one of the stories in Lethem’s new book “Lucky Alan” takes readers back to his old neighborhood, now a nice place full of nannies, dog-walkers — and yuppies who mutter mean things about the main character, Stevick.
“Procedure in Plain Air” spins a chilling yarn about what happens one day when Stevick, while sitting outside a café, sees workers dig a hole in the street and put a prisoner in it.
“The story is sort of set on the corner of Bond and Pacific,” Lethem told the audience at his book launch Thursday night, which of course was held in Brooklyn, at DUMBO’s powerHouse Arena.
Specifically, the setting Lethem had in mind is outside Building on Bond, he told the Brooklyn Eagle after his presentation — a Boerum Hill coffee shop by day/bar by night with benches on the sidewalk.
The story itself doesn’t spell out that it takes place in Brooklyn. The only explicit geographical reference is a brief mention of office workers in Manhattan. So local fans of his fiction got a kick out of hearing that the haunting tale takes place right here at home.
Though the setting is Boerum Hill, the inspiration for the story came from afar — from the controversial prison at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba where suspected terrorists are being held.
“It’s pretty embarrassingly naked what the story is trying to do. It’s trying to conjugate the simultaneity of this splendid world and Guantanamo by just shoving them together,” Lethem, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction winner, explained after reading the story to his audience.
“It doesn’t mean I have any real moral angle on the problem that I’m hoping to make other people understand,” he said. “I’m just trying to make the question visible, take it out of hiding in some way.”
This is a method Lethem deployed in his early short stories, of “putting two incommensurable things as close together as possible, just shoving them into each other’s spaces and seeing what that was like,” he said.
He said he wrote “Procedure in Plain Air” around the time he was working on “Chronic City,” a novel inspired by the “confusion” and “distress” he experienced over what New York City was like between 9/11 and the financial collapse of 2008.
In “Procedure in Plain Air,” Lethem was going for a “dry, slightly cryptic tone,” something like the late novelist Thomas Berger’s, he said.
Berger, “the closest thing to an American Kafka,” used “that same kind of formality to increase the sense of alienation and confusion, the way Kafka does,” Lethem explained.
He doesn’t remember exactly how long he worked on the story, but he thinks that once the idea for it came to him, it probably took him a couple weeks to write.
If he writes a page or two per day, he considers it “a magnificent accomplishment,” he said.
“Procedure in Plain Air” is one of nine stories in the new collection, which is by turns poignant, slightly surreal and ruefully funny.
Lethem also talked about a novel he began working on a year ago during a sabbatical in Berlin, and revealed that its possible title is “The Blot.”
The book, which is about half-finished, is about an expatriate “who has lived his whole life running away from American life,” Lethem said.
This main character, Lethem explained, is a “drifter” and “a backgammon hustler” who makes a living off rich men who think they can play that game better than he does. The settings are far-flung cities such as Berlin and Singapore.
“It’s a different book for me in a really exciting way that I couldn’t have predicted,” Lethem said.
“I’ve been a very American writer,” he said, with really American subject matter and settings.
At the moment, though, he’s not working on the novel because he’s serving as the editor of the upcoming annual volume of “The Best American Comics.”
Also, he is collaborating with his brother, Blake, an artist who lives in Sunset Park, on a fictional essay about Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boys founding member who died of cancer in 2012.