By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Illustration by Young Chun|
A bildungsroman for the hipster set, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitudeis a big, lyrical novel about childhood, interracial friendship, pop culture and Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn. (It’s so relentlessly pro-Brooklyn it could have been commissioned by the borough’s tourism bureau.) Most of all, it’s an elegy for the generation that came of age in the late 1970s and early ’80s, just in time to witness the birth of hip-hop, punk, graffiti art and crack. The book is more than 500 pages long and imbued with a minutely detailed and thoroughly engrossing nostalgia for a bygone era. Its first 150 pages, in particular, are brilliantly done and form a portrait of a New York childhood so convincing in its realism that by the end a reader would have easily enough material to imagine he’d come of age there himself.
Dylan Ebdus, the son of a bohemian Jewish couple, grows up on Dean Street in Gowanus, a Brooklyn neighborhood taking its first tentative steps toward gentrification. At his public school, he is one of only three white boys — a fact his mother is carelessly proud of — and grows up in a world where his black peers wield all the power and abuse it thoroughly. “Yoking,” the term of art for a maneuver in which an older black kid puts a white kid in an arm lock and then, along with his friends, teasingly inquires whether the white boy can “lend” him a dollar, is a humiliation so ritualized it becomes a kind of generic toll for simply walking the street or going to school. Rather than fight, which would be foolhardy, Dylan and another white boy, Arthur Lomb, slowly ingratiate themselves by taking on the protective camouflage of “blackness” and saying “Yo” as often as possible. If their parents are pioneering gentrifiers, they’re advance wiggers.
Dylan’s one deep and sustaining friendship is with Mingus Rude, the son of a great but self-destructive soul singer, and, like Dylan, named after a musical legend. Mingus is a few months older than Dylan and far more streetwise. One grade ahead in school, he serves as a surrogate older brother and tries to protect him from the most vicious elements in their circle. Initially, they bond over street games and comic books; later it’s tagging and drugs. Their friendship is of the adolescent kind that’s both too intense and too self-conscious to formally acknowledge its existence. Hypersensitive to the racial barrier that divides them, they do a great deal together but discuss what they do very little. Mingus leads and Dylan follows, until the time comes for them to part. Dylan goes to college, and Mingus goes to jail. Both, in different ways, are prisoners of “cool.”
Spellbinding as much of it is, The Fortress of Solitudedefinitely has its problems. An intermittent magical-realist strain, which has Dylan and Mingus as the co-owners of a ring that allows them to fly and occasionally become invisible, is the least of them. More serious are the book’s numerous evasions and omissions. (We are casually informed that Dylan is Jewish near the end of the book, for example.) Though Mingus’ coke-addled, soul-singer father is a superb creation, grown-ups as genuine authority figures are almost completely absent. Partly this is a matter of circumstance: Mingus is brought up by his father alone and Dylan’s mom disappears when he’s a young boy. (Lethem’s best-known novel before this was called Motherless Brooklyn.) Still, it’s scarcely credible that the admonishing voices of adulthood could be so absent from a youthful environment. Equally lacking is any but the most glancing account of school work or teachers, though Dylan and Mingus are in school for most of the novel. Obviously, this is a deliberate choice on Lethem’s part.
Which does lead one to a question. How do you write a book this long about the school days of a guy who becomes a journalist, an intellectual not unlike Lethem himself, without showing him reading a book more than once in the first 400 pages? When, out of the blue, we’re told that Dylan receives an “A” for a paper on Faulkner in college, it’s as if we’d suddenly been informed that he was a qualified airline pilot or a champion surfer. Apparently, he gets into all his fancy schools (Peter Stuyvesant, Bennington, UC Berkeley) by magic. And by some other, entirely negative form of sorcery, the equally intelligent Mingus gets nowhere.
If there’s an explanation on offer, it’s that, starting in junior high, the young Dylan is motivated by fear. Should he flunk his exams, he’ll have to go to an even worse school, where he’ll be bullied and yoked even more. So, away from Mingus — and away from the reader, too — he bones up on his studies and gets into exclusive Stuyvesant High, which accepts only the best and brightest in the city. But Mingus, who has nothing to fear from yoking, blithely cuts classes, smokes dope, and covers every available urban surface with the word DOSE, his personal “tag.” Other than that, he doesn’t do much of anything. In his portrayal of him, Lethem piles on the “cool” so much that we forget that the real word to describe him is lost.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city