While Tooth is the heart of this book, Insteadman is the glue. He lives on residuals from his role as a child star on the sitcom “Martyr & Pesty,” pines for teenage sweetheart Janice Trumbull (an astronaut lost in space), and attends parties along with the likes of Lou Reed, Steve Martin, and David Blaine. Reputation rather than feeling seems to be the chief concern of Lethem’s characters. A high social profile is the key aspiration.
No doubt Lethem attends similar gatherings. This insider novel is sure to be a cause célèbre as Manhattan trendinistas fall all over one another trying to match “Chronic” characters Tooth, neurasthenic ghostwriter Oona Laszlo, and the vividly depicted heiress Georgina Hawkmanaji with exemplars of that island’s actual upper crust. This is a novel of talk, and even if the plot – its leitmotif a giant tiger wrecking neighborhoods (shades of the “gray fog” of 9/11) – rambles, the conversation can be scintillating.
“Chronic City” mulls fiction versus reality. Is that outsized tiger roaming those dense streets a real, fearsome animal? Is it a machine burrowing underground to create quakes swallowing up Tooth’s neighborhood and forcing the frail man into the Friendreth Canine Apartments, a building for homeless dogs? Or is it a political device intended to clear space for the Second Avenue Subway line and shore up the mayor’s power?