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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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‘Dissident Gardens’: a radical American family tree

Jonathan Lethem’s new novel “Dissident Gardens” features gorgeous writing about some thoroughly unlikable characters, as it follows a family of American radicals through the 20th and 21st centuries. Lethem reads Sept. 19 at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jonathan Lethem

The author of “Dissident Gardens” will appear at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).

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“Dissident Gardens”

by Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 384 pp., $27.95

In the world of writers, Jonathan Lethem can riff with the best, spinning knockout lines that make you stop and stare — you’re gawking, really — putting the story on hold while you admire a sentence’s every turn.

In “Dissident Gardens,” Lethem’s novel No. 9, he writes of a young boy, Sergius, who is presented with a guitar on the day he learns his parents have died. “The guitar,” Lethem writes, was “like Sergius himself, a shape made around a vacancy, and made easily to cry.”

Nice, huh?

Now add a turn. Here’s Lethem on a young man smitten.

“Her attentions had seemed to him like a glorious bottle into which he’d hope to slip himself and then expand, like a model ship, sails tucked until the moment they rose to occupy every corner. Instead, he felt like a lightning bug, zooming inside only to be swallowed, rebounding against the impassive glass, pulsing a small light so as not to be lost inside.”

That’s highlighter material there. In “Dissident Gardens,” there’s a lot of highlighter material. The writing soars.

The story, alas, does not.

Lethem brings us three generations of radicals: Rose Zimmer, Rose’s daughter Miriam and Miriam’s son Sergius, along with sundry people who come into their lives, from Miriam’s cousin Lenny to her husband Tommy to Cicero, son of Rose’s not-so-secret lover.

The book takes us from the 1940s to the recent Occupy protests, canvassing assorted “isms” — American communism, Quakerism, secularism, pacifism — while chronicling a Utopian quest that traverses Queens, Manhattan, a college in Maine, rural Pennsylvania, Germany and Nicaragua.

But for all its people and places, the story lacks for momentum and mystery, long on character sketches and short on dramatic tension. And the people? They are an unpleasant lot, in opposition, it seems, to everything, including one another; they are forever getting expelled, from a store, from a political party, from a country.

Rose, the “scourge of Sunnyside,” she who “burned grudges for fuel,” is a horror to her neighbors and just about everyone else. Cicero, “the ineradicable blemish on the New England horizon,” is a horror to his college students.

Spending hundreds of pages with these people — grievances galore, along with some seriously twisted mommy issues — requires endurance. You are attending a disagreeable family reunion that goes on for 60 or 70 years.

Fortunately, Lethem — winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for “Motherless Brooklyn” — excels at the entertaining diversion, riffing on dreadlocks or folk music or arcade games of old, from Frogger to Q-Bert to Time Pilot.

And there’s always his writing, music to the ear.

Reading Lethem’s latest, I found myself thinking of Slash, the lead guitarist for Guns N’ Roses. Weird, I know. But the guitar on “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” that staple of the ’80s, is so catchy the story becomes secondary — and that’s a good thing, because the story’s hard to take, with lines like this: “Her hair reminds me / of a warm safe place / where as a child I’d hide.”

Ewww. Talk about issues.

But the guitar? I could listen to that all day.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com.A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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