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Novelist Jonathan Lethem Goes Back to the Land

In the Blue Hill writer's new book, The Arrest, the fallout of worldwide technological collapse plays out Down East.

Jonathan Lethem
Courtesy of Ecco Press
By Buzz Poole

In a near-future world where technology has ceased to function — cars, firearms, electricity itself — the foggy, rocky (and fictional) peninsula of Tinderwick, Maine, is home to an agrarian community cut off from the outside world. But the industrious Down Easters don’t have it too bad until a stranger arrives in a nuclear-powered, tank-like burrowing machine, disrupting their post-apocalyptic routines.

The Arrest, Jonathan Lethem’s 12th novel, isn’t his first story with Maine as a setting, but it’s the first time the bestselling author has envisioned here one of the disquieting, fantastical futures that characterize several of his other books. Lethem made his first acquaintance with small Maine towns during childhood summers, when his father, painter Richard Brown Lethem, brought the family from New York to North Berwick to stay with fellow painter George Burk. Years later, Lethem bought a farmhouse in East Blue Hill, the former home of accomplished New England historian Esther Wood. In 2010, he moved to California to teach at Pomona College. This year, for the first time in a long time, he didn’t make it to Maine. “I never expected to see a single day of July in southern California,” Lethem said via Zoom call. 

Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest

How did you end up in Blue Hill? 

In the ’80s, my father moved to Berwick, which became the de facto family home. Then I started teaching at Stonecoast [a creative writing program, now housed at the University of Southern Maine], which was headquartered then at Bowdoin College, so for several summers I would visit my dad and then drive to Brunswick. I realized that as a kid I’d only ever known this one little shred of the state. My friend Elizabeth Hand, the novelist, had an idyllic cottage on a pond in Lincolnville. That was another eye opener. I was inching up the coast. And then Mainer and novelist Heidi Julavits said, if you’re in Lincolnville, come to Blue Hill. I crossed what was then that old green bridge, and it was what I’d been looking for. It was Maine squared.

In The Arrest, the protagonist’s role in the community is shaped by being “from away.” What’s been your experience of community here?

The first time we took occupancy, we came up in mud season. I didn’t have anyone to plow, so I was shoveling in April to get my car out. People on the road, who were relieved that someone had bought Esther Wood’s house who wasn’t only going to be there for two weeks in summer — or worse, bulldoze it and put up a McMansion — they were marveling at us, these stupid New York people. What are they doing? They need help. And they started coming in with casseroles and advice and invitations. These were mostly people who had known Esther Wood, so there was sympathetic magic. Some of them had been there for five generations. Some of them I came to understand as the sons and daughters of Helen and Scott Nearing [authors of 1954’s Living the Good Life, a foundational text of the back-to-the-land movement]. Like the Nearings, these people had settled on the peninsula to do organic farming and become real, crucial parts of the community, but they’d grown up wherever. That’s what made me feel so comfortable in East Blue Hill.

Your narrator muses that “assaults on time — time’s fragmentation, or insane velocity — had also been Arrested” thanks to technology crashing. The passing of time feels pretty different these days. What’s your take on the book coming out during a pandemic? 

There’s always a weirdness to finishing a book. You forget it, then it comes out and lives in this public space, and you are answerable for it. And then you see the book take its awkward place in people’s imaginations. There ended up being something about The Arrest that is weirdly right, like the super return to locality that quarantine has imposed on us. Then again, the book couldn’t be more wrong if I’d tried. I have the internet shutting down, but then look at us, here we are. Everything has been transposed into virtuality. The book is flagrantly right and flagrantly wrong at the same time, which I like. It’s freeing. It forces you to see it as an allegory of your experience.

Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest was released in hardcover on November 10 by Ecco Press. $27.99.