Jonathan Lethem's new novel is all about The Three Bs: Berkeley, Berlin and Backgammon.
A Gambler's Anatomy also concerns itself with Singapore, radical facial surgery, and fast-food choices on Telegraph Avenue.
The novel represents a kind of literary homecoming. A former resident of Brooklyn, a summer resident of Maine, and a current resident of Claremont, California — where he serves as Pomona College's Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing — Lethem, in his new novel, circles back to the stomping grounds of his twenties to tell the tale of a professional backgammon hustler losing his grip on his livelihood and his very identity.
In a telephone interview, the author of Dissident Gardens and Motherless Brooklyn reminisced about his days as a bookseller at Moe's, detailed his sabbatical in Germany, and discussed the evolution of his latest East Bay-centric work of fiction.
Lethem's first trek west happened in 1985, when he dropped out of Bennington College and hitchhiked cross-country with a friend.
"I was in some ways adopting a kind of generic narrative that I associate really strongly with the Beats," he said. "If New York seems too hierarchical and Old World and too much about legacies of propriety, then run away to the West Coast — especially to the Bay Area — and find freedom. It's a place for self-invention and utopian dreaming."
He left briefly two years later, only to return and begin ten years as a bookseller — a decade divided almost evenly between time spent at Pegasus Books and at Moe's on Telegraph.
After work, "I was just running back to my little garret and writing endless reams of fiction and trying to get it published," he recalled. "In many ways it served a beautiful purpose for me. I wasn't beholden to very much, and I could lead a very free and easy life. So I'd go home taking half of my paycheck in books." Lethem developed a rapport with Moe Moskowitz, known for his unrepentant cigar smoking and harsh judgment of books brought in for sales credit.
"I think he was terrifying to customers but he was thoroughly endearing and a very benevolent presence," Lethem said. "Moe made sure it was a great place to work. To work there was to be enmeshed in the history of the place.”
Doris Moskowitz, the current owner of Moe's, remembered her father's fondness of Lethem.
"Moe was somebody whose parents thought he was a 'deadbeat intellectual,' someone who had not followed the clear path," she said. "He became a successful businessman, but he was also an art school dropout, a musician, and an activist and all kinds of other things. He liked people who followed their own path and he especially liked people who had a confidence in what they were doing. Jonathan was always clear that he was doing something interesting."
During his tenure at Moe's and before his 30th birthday, Lethem published his first novel, the hard-boiled detective/science fiction mash-up Gun, With Occasional Music. In addition to story and essay collections, Lethem has published nine novels.
Lethem's latest book opens in Berlin, as Alexander Bruno experiences one of the worst nights of his life. Soon after losing virtually all his savings, Bruno has a seizure, wakes up in a hospital, and is told there's a tumor growing deep in his face.
The Germany tie might be traced back to Lethem’s 2014 sabbatical at the American Academy in Berlin, where he was able to research the local medical facilities first-hand, including the world-renowned Charite' Hospital. "The Berlin Wall ran right along the edge of it, on the Eastern side," Lethem said. He noted that, for a time, standard staff training "included instructions on how to prevent patients from jumping from the West-facing windows."
Bruno's catastrophic medical condition requires that he return to the Bay Area to be treated by one particular, iconoclastic surgeon. His tumor also puts him at the mercy of Keith Stolarsky, a fellow Berkeley High grad turned millionaire landlord, who agrees to pay Bruno's hospital bills at UCSF and his rent in Berkeley.
The Berkeley Lethem depicts in A Gambler's Anatomy is both recognizable and deliciously skewed. Malcolm X Elementary School and Chez Panisse are part of the literary geography, as is People's Park, "that dusty no-man's-acre of rhetoric and human feces." But Telegraph Avenue is home to something called Zodiac Media, and Zombie Burger competes with Kropotkin's Sliders.
Asked how the real-life landscape has changed since his departure, Lethem said, "When I was there, for better or worse, Telegraph was where the action was. We had Cody's, and there were places like Larry Blake's. In some ways, it was the place to be.
"Now I think there's this feeling that it's been cut off to drift into its own weird orbit, like an untethered planet. It's like Berkeley expunged it through the airlock. 'Go to the Gourmet Ghetto, go to the Arts District, but for god's sake don't go up there!'"
OK, so why backgammon?
"I learned that a kid I grew up with in Brooklyn had for a time made his way in the world as a backgammon hustler. And there's something so completely absurd and particular about that," Lethem said. "You can't tell whether it's a deep subject or a totally silly one. And that fit my leaning for this character and this book so completely."