Former child actor Chase Insteadman, the hero of Jonathan Lethem’s ninth novel, Chronic City, describes himself as Ralph Bellamy in a Cary Grant movie. Pretty astute for a stoner living off his residuals on the Upper East Side, waiting for his fiancée to come home, which is what Chase becomes in this high-in-high-society tale whose buzz quickly wears off.
While Chase has held onto his looks since his starring role as the chipper intern to a crotchety television lawyer, his biggest role these days is that of earthbound companion to an astronaut named Janice stranded aboard an international space station, whose letters back to him are printed in the weekly gossip rags. At a voiceover job, he falls in with Perkus Tooth, an artist who used to captivate the city with broadsides, but now spends most of the day getting high and trying to think of ways to contact Marlon Brando. Soon, Chase and Perkus spend every night smoking pot, watching old movies, and bidding for pottery online, occasionally joined by Richard, a fixer for the mayor, currently wooing a socialite.
Chase credits his new faux boho friends, obsessed with maintaining their ties to an edgier New York he could never claim membership in, with waking him from an existential stupor. But as the least observant of the pack, he slips easily into self-indulgence. And like many stoner comedies, Chronic City lets him wallow there on the pretext of self-discovery. It’s hard to sympathize with a guy whose most pressing dilemma is whether to go public with his new girlfriend. He and Richard remark on the emptiness of their black-tie life over and over like amnesiacs, while Perkus’ theories linger outside the frame.
His affable blandness would ring as even more pompous were it not for the occasional chapter outside of Chase’s point of view, including Janice’s strangely resolute missives detailing the increasingly desperate straits of her fellow crew members. But the real neglected character in Chronic City is Lethem’s Manhattan, beset variously by strange smells, a crippling fog, and an attacking tiger which seems to favor bodegas and gentlemen’s social clubs. The motley band assembled through late-night diner runs and debates over marijuana brand names feels more and more claustrophobic as snatches of that city peek through. Instead of becoming the clubhouse of discovery, Perkus’ apartment becomes the black hole into which Lethem’s wacky metropolis collapses; as the broadsider searches for clues to Manhattan’s eventual demise, Armageddon looks like a deliverance.