Click here to read reviewer Michal Lemberger's take on The Fortress of Solitude.
It was only a matter of time before the incredibly talented Jonathan Lethem put forth a sprawling Brooklyn novel. His first big release after the critical success of Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem’s new novel, Fortress of Solitude is a big, messy, yet immensely readable novel about growing up in 1970’s Brooklyn.
Dylan Ebdus is the son of a hippie activist mom, Rachel, and an artist father, Abraham. Their white presence on Dean Street in Gowanus, a predominantly African-American Brooklyn neighborhood, reflects Rachel’s strong social convictions. She pushes Dylan out into the street to make friends with the local black kids hanging around the neighborhood stoops. Dylan goes through childhood with Mingus Rude, a street-savvy African American kid who often rescues his best friend from seemingly difficult situations. Together they devour comic books of all kinds including Superman, occasionally, even if his fortress of solitude reminds Dylan too much of his own artist father isolated in his studio.
The Superman imagery becomes all too real when Dylan encounters homeless man Aaron Doily X., who makes a very bold attempt at flying and in the process seriously injures himself. Maybe with Aaron’s ring, flying is indeed possible — Dylan can now become Aeroman and escape his own personal, confining, fortress of solitude. Best friends Dylan and Mingus share this secret as one of the many during their years together. Eventually, their drifting apart is cemented by a terrible incident that occurs just before Dylan leaves for college. Dylan grows up to work in the music industry, putting together reissues of old songs; Mingus becomes a convict.
The Fortress of Solitude is most impressive in its achievement of precisely capturing the spirit of 1970’s Brooklyn. In painting the textures of one street and in capturing one boy’s life, Lethem has managed to create larger pictures: the book covers the growth of hip-hop, the rise of various drugs, including cocaine, as street commodities, and the process of gentrification.
In a recent interview, Lethem said that his novel is the testimony of one person and that he is not speaking to larger issues. Such larger issues include one of race, the undercurrent of which runs strongly and beautifully in the book. Probably young Dylan’s biggest torment was the act of “yoking":
“Sixth grade. The year of the headlock, the year of the yoke, Dylan’s heat-flushed cheeks wedged into one or another black kid’s elbow, book bag skidding to the gutter, pockets rapidly, easily frisked for lunch money or a bus pass.”
Dylan is forever tormented by the opposing ironies of his whiteness. His life as a young “white boy” is an endless series of humiliations, yet his whiteness eventually affords him opportunities to leave the neighborhood; he moves on to a famously rich preppy college in Vermont. Even here, surrounded by all white boys, Dylan doesn’t fit in: “By eleven o’ clock, two or three hundred of us throbbed in one mass to Rick James’s 'Super Freak' on the sticky living room floor of Fish House,” Dylan says of the party scene in his college, “That easy appropriation of dance-floor funk was a first taste, for me, of something I desperately wanted to understand: the suburban obliviousness of these white children to the intricate boundaries of race and music which were my inheritance and obsession. Nobody here cared — it was only a danceable song.”
Lethem brilliantly captures one boy’s dilemmas and guilt as he struggles to make sense of his childhood decisions years later. In abruptly abandoning his best friend after a horrible incident, Dylan feels the cowardice implicit in that reaction. Was his moving out a natural progression into (white) adulthood or was it an act of running away, of taking the easier way by doing, essentially, nothing?
Dylan’s escapades with Aaron X. Doily’s “magic” ring seem jarring at first — Lethem’s foray into magical realism. It is only later that one realizes that the flight it offers is the purest form of childhood fantasy. It affords the wearer a true escape, an alternate version of reality. It is only Mingus who uses that power of flight to actually see reality: “(he) knew the block (Dean Street) for the fragile island it was, at sea in the larger neighborhood—knew it as a flying man might, aerial view.”
The Fortress of Solitude is an enjoyable novel and large-hearted in its embrace of big themes. While Lethem does well here with larger themes, these sections sometimes read a bit too structured. He is at his best when describing the joys and pains of childhood and at trying to explain a childhood constantly trapped between ideas of race and selfdom. How else to explain Dylan’s question when he meets Mingus, years later, in prison: “Mingus, did you have any idea how often I was getting yoked?”