Equal parts Charles Dickens and Marvin Gaye, Lethem's novel is so achingly alive, you don't read it so much as move into it. Despite some curious detours in the second half, it's an awe-inspiring achievement.
In the first half, virtual orphan Dylan Ebdus fights for survival as one of the only white boys in what was politely called a "rough" neighborhood in 1970s Brooklyn. Rough isn't nearly a grim enough word though: The runt, based on Lethem himself, spends his childhood under attack by muggers. His mother disappears, and his artist father is oblivious and silent. Dylan's only friend is a bighearted black kid named Mingus Rude, whose dad is an R&B singer (partly based on the Temptations' David Ruffin and the Spinners' Phillippe Wynne) fading into a drugged hell. The depth of period detail is astounding and many scenes are indelible: R&B musicians decked out in "utmost regalia" pile out of a car looking like soul superheroes; kids "rack," or shoplift, spray paint; and two graffiti geniuses stun their peers by managing to tag the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In the second half the grown-up Dylan is a music critic and much less likable. Superhero-style magic–a ring that enables its wearer to fly or become invisible–becomes central to the plot, but it seems as out of place as a light saber would be in David Copperfield. And the despair of the black characters, almost all of whom are criminals, becomes nearly unbearable. Still, you will be utterly engulfed by Lethem's gifts for style and setting; this is a big, bold panorama that will stay with you long after you finish it. Lethem may be the finest novelist writing about New York City today.