Click here to read reviewer Poornima Apte's take on The Fortress of Solitude.
Jonathan Lethem is everywhere these days: a new collection of essays, a new collection of stories prose and fiction pieces in top-tier magazines like the New Yorker, and more. He’s become one of the most prolific and talked about young novelists of our time. That reputation rests largely on the accomplishment of his two most recent novels, Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, both of which became bestsellers and were embraced and disputed by the literati in this country.
His books’ attraction lies largely in his talent for detail and nostalgia. In The Fortress of Solitude, he so perfectly captures a moment in time—both historical and personal—peopling the narrative with characters, styles, preoccupations, all of the small details that make an era come alive in fiction. The book tells the story of Dylan Ebdus, the only child of an artist father and hippie mother who move to the predominantly poor black neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn. That this one white family is the harbinger of future gentrification does not help Dylan, one of a handful of white kids at the local public school. He is relentlessly bullied to the extent that he perfects the role of passive victim, giving whatever money he has to whomever asks, expecting them to zero in on him.
To find solace, Dylan turns to the pastimes offered to a non-athletic, put-upon man-child in the 1970s: first stoop ball, then comic books, then music. These he shares with Mingus Rude, the wild child of Barrett Rude Junior, a coked-up former soul singer who is in the process of slowly killing himself from the moment he appears on Dylan’s block. Mingus is more than a friend, though. He’s the self-assured protector that Dylan so desperately needs, but even he can’t keep all the forces that assault another boy’s life at bay. When Dylan begins junior high school, Mingus is nowhere to be found, and when Dylan’s mother abandons the family, no one can help him.
This would seem to be a straightforward coming-of-age novel, one that is filled a bit more than most with the trivia of a life: DC versus Marvel, folk versus rock versus soul, the characteristics of a perfect spaldeen, the ins and outs of graffiti tagging. But Lethem adds a touch of magic, a ring that gives its wearer the ability to fly. Later, when the boys have grown and Dylan is an unsuccessful adult and music writer and Mingus is in prison, another black man whose promise was never realized, the ring’s powers change. Now it turns its wearer invisible. As boys, Dylan and Mingus use the ring in an adolescent and ultimately failed attempt to emulate their comic book heroes by fighting crime, protecting real people from the real dangers of their urban landscape. Ultimately, Dylan tries to save Mingus with it, an act that he understands will save himself from a lifetime of passivity, but even that doesn’t go according to plan. Mingus reuses the ring, but, in a gesture indicative of his inherent ability to lead others, sends Dylan to another. Depite good intentions, both fail to save anyone, and the entire scheme ends in the death of Robert Woolfolk, who has trailed and tortured Dylan his since childhood.
Lethem has said, “I guess I wanted to write about what we all want and can never have--the ability to rise above our lives, the ability to see our worlds from an impossibly privileged angle, the ability to rescue other people, or ourselves, from fate, the ability to slip between the seams of the world and disappear, to know what others are doing or saying when we're not present, the ability to change identities.” Most people who read the book accept that explanation, since Dylan and Mingus really do fly, and then Dylan really does disappear, threading his way through an upstate New York prison without being detected. I’d like to suggest, though, that the ring’s symbolic power is more individually nuanced: as a child, Dylan stood out, one white speck against the large black canvas of his neighborhood. There was no way for him to blend in, become one of many. His only hope was to rise above it all. Later, after he’s left Gowanus, he has become invisible (he even becomes a radio disk jockey for a while, a disembodied voice with no physicality at all); as a white man in America, he’s the norm, just another guy walking, unnoticed, down the street. No one suspects him of anything; even he can’t imagine himself acting at all, so the only way for him to break out of his torpor is to use that very element that he is so uncomfortable with: his whiteness, that invisible state of being that allows so much to slip by.
The fact that Robert, that representative of both the mean streets and the inevitability of incarceration that they presage, who had known about the flying properties but apparently never figured out the invisibility, falls off the roof of the prison, only proves the point. He is seen falling, neither in flight nor invisible. The ring doesn’t work for him, only for Dylan and Mingus, the two boys who don’t quite fit in, who have potential—Dylan is accepted to a prestigious high school and Mingus has the natural qualities of a leader: intelligence, independence and guts—even if it is never realized.
For all the detail that brings this novel to life, Lethem is a disappointing writer. The pop culture references that litter all of his work (full disclosure, I reviewed his new collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist for another publication) tend to stand in for the emotional center rather than bolster it. Perhaps Dylan is representative of a certain type of boy, the kind who does obsess over comic books and movies and music, a somewhat sensitive, observant kid who doesn’t know how else to navigate the shoals of life, but a novel has to make something of that type and not just show it in all its fixated detail.
Lethem himself was that kind of boy, and if his essays are any indication, he is that kind of man, so sharply attuned to the minutiae of his surroundings that, rather than face the losses he has suffered head-on, watches the same movie over and over or learns the minute variations between A and B sides of albums no one else ever wanted to listen to.
He has claimed that this is his most personal novel, which is not to say that Dylan is Jonathan Lethem, nor would it be fair to read this book as autobiographical, but there are some interesting convergences that cannot be ignored. Lethem’s parents: an artist and a hippie, did move them to “Boerum Hill”—the nicer name adopted by some early white inhabitants of Gowanus—in the early '70s. They were, in that odd way that allows poor, bohemian white people stand in for larger forces, part of the first wave of the gentrification that would utterly change the neighborhood in the last part of the twentieth century.
Here’s the difference: unlike Dylan’s mother, who leaves her husband and small son at the mercy of their world, Lethem’s mother died. Make no mistake, death is an abandonment. It may be easier to forgive a dead parent than one who leaves, but that forgiveness must be given rather than presumed. The second, less successful, half of the novel, which chronicles the grown-up Dylan’s attempt to come to terms with his life, ends up as a search for the mother, a groping sense of trying to catch up with the abandoner, to show her all the ways she has messed up in her decisions. He never does find her, and there’s little wonder in that, because what a grown child would say to a dead parent may not be at all the same as what he would say to one who ran off to Indiana. So what would Dylan say to his mother, beyond “why did you leave me?” It’s a conversation I do not think Lethem himself could not penetrate. That’s the point at which his imagination, which is so filled with the look and color and heft of things, ends, the point past which he cannot, but must, go.
Where the novel turns instead is to the father, because this novel is as much about fatherlessness as it is about being left motherless. Both Dylan and Mingus live isolated lives, their inscrutable and distant fathers living in rooms above theirs, haunting their lives with a presence so remote and useless that it doesn’t fill anything. In the final few paragraphs, however, after his futile search has been abandoned, Dylan returns to a memory of a drive he took with his father. Silent, uncomprehending, they sit next to one another with little to say. But his father is there with him, and we finally come to see that it is the silence of presence that matters. His father may have shadowed his life, but he stayed. All Dylan had to do was return to him.