Review – Lethem, “The Fortress of Solitude”

Jonathan Lethem, “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003) – I read this for my Birthday Lecture, which this year is going to be about the literature and generational identity of Generation X. I didn’t expect to like it. I had read one of Lethem’s other books, “Motherless Brooklyn,” and did not enjoy it. Moreover, research for birthday lectures is the reading category that, along with my readings on the right, most reliably fills the bottom rungs of my year’s reading in terms of quality. This year has been no exception- Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Jim Goad, other Gen X scribblers are all near the bottom of the list (I keep lists) and I expect a few more to join them. But “The Fortress of Solitude” turned out to be very good.

This is mainly the story of Dylan Ebdus, child of first-wave gentrifiers in a part of Brooklyn variously called Gowanus (after a smelly canal, pre-gentrification) or Boerum Hill (after an old Dutch patroon who barely touched this distinctly flat part of westernmost Long Island, after gentrification took). Lethem — and his fictional analog, Dylan — will also tell you that it’s the story of Dean Street, the block where his artist parents deposit themselves and their neurotic, diffident paleface only child. Fighting trainers tell you to look at a bewildering variety of body parts to figure out what your opponent will do next: I’ve heard center-of-chest, shoulders, hips, feet, hands, and eyes. Trusting what an author says about their own work reminds me of trying to figure out an opponent’s intentions by looking at their eyes: it can tell you something, but it’s also an obvious place to fake, and even when the other isn’t faking, there’s all kinds of cultural filters around what eyes are saying. All that is to say, “The Fortress of Solitude” is kind of about the street, but really about one kid’s interactions with it. 

Dylan’s parents are a reclusive painter and a sort of general hippie gadabout lady type, the latter of whom runs away from home when Dylan is about ten, sending the occasional cryptic postcard. Gowanus is mostly black and Puerto Rican kids, not the poorest by any stretch, not quite rich or “respectable” enough to be middle class. There’s a weird old WASP-y lady who haunts the neighborhood, dreaming of rich whites “retaking” “Boerum Hill” (Lethem dramatizing the way real estate people – not necessarily revanchist biddies, but hey, it’s fiction – dug through archives for nicer-sounding names for the neighborhoods they were upselling), but it’s only well after her death that gentrification truly takes hold. So little Dylan plays stickball and whatnot, then becomes a mark for “yoking” – a sort of more-polite variant on mugging – by mostly black peers, along with another white nerd in the neighborhood. 

Not the least of Lethem’s accomplishments here are looking at this racial dynamic without quailing, catastrophizing, excuse-making, or other obfuscations. Dylan isn’t an underdog hero, he doesn’t “have it coming,” he’s just a kid, who, like most kids, is trapped in dynamics he can’t control. He’s not in especially serious danger, and this form of bullying has a sort of resigned quality to it that other forms don’t; it sucks, but adolescence (and it’s on-ramp, and it’s off) usually does. Dylan’s best friend is black (and Dylan, who may be a nerd but isn’t completely stupid when it comes to social stuff, knows better than to name-check his black friend to his black yokers), Mingus Rude, son of a declining soul singer. The basis of their friendship are shared, private adventures- buying and reading comic books, getting into graffiti, etc. Together, they see a mythic city the others don’t, complete with comic book-style superheroes. They come to believe – Lethem tells us – that they get a ring from a homeless guy that lets them fly. This seems like the kind of thing that knocked them dead in 2003 but I’ve decided that it’s mostly just a mediocre metaphor. It’s not enough to ruin the book, by a long shot. 

Others might disagree, but to me the central action in this long, sprawling novel is Dylan’s negotiation of, and eventually creation of, various worlds with other people, and the problems of living in multiple, sometimes intersecting, worlds. Dylan and Mingus (one thing I don’t love about this book is the names of characters) have their shared world. Dylan shares a world of boredom with another white nerd in the neighborhood, Arthur, and resents it when Arthur starts to move into the world with him and Mingus. Dylan has the hermetic world of his home with his Dad, who’s been shut up painting onto celluloid film for decades and doesn’t look likely to stop (he eventually starts painting covers for scifi novels he despises but which Dylan eats up- more worlds). Eventually, Dylan escapes Dean Street for a magnet arts high school in Manhattan, starts dabbling in nerdish, punk, and New Wave stuff with rich white kids, and plays a sort of cultural arbitrage between both. He winds up at a Bennington-manque, like Lethem did in real life (classmates with Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis!), which, even as he only stays there the one year or so, seals his transition away from Dean Street and into… 

And here, there’s a lacuna, not the finely-detailed descriptions we got of Dylan’s youth (among other things, the book would be super-long if it kept up that level of detail). We see Dylan in then-contemporary early-aughts California. He’s a pedantic music scribbler, obsessed with black culture, up to having a black girlfriend who sees through his shit. He’s able to do this, but Mingus is in jail for a variety of mostly minor crimes. Lethem does not pretend that their worlds are equivalent, even if they grew up creating and sharing one together. Dylan did just as much stupid stuff as Mingus did, but could get out. Mingus did not have the same escape venues. 

The ending has some hijinks involving the super-powers, but they’re also a clear way for the author to get Dylan to see things, and others to do things, that would be hard to narratively arrange otherwise, but wouldn’t be impossible… that’s a vague way of saying that it didn’t interfere too much with my enjoyment. Moreover, Dylan tells us the point, as he sees it, in the end- the world-creating possibilities of his time, the worlds that got created and destroyed, leaving only remains – music, art, feelings in people who have been passed by by time – behind. People often dislike that sort of point-making in novels, but I found it worked well. I’m not mentioning all kinds of stuff that happens here – bravura passages, changes of scenery (Vermont, mostly), some funny stuff about the scifi and art scenes through Dylan’s dad – because like I said, it’s a big long book with a lot going on. It’s seldom “cute” the way Lethem could be, especially in “Motherless Brooklyn.” It took itself seriously but not at all humorlessly. I was glad to be wrong about what I thought this would be. *****

Review – Lethem, “The Fortress of Solitude”

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