A bildungsroman for the hipster set, Jonathan Lethems The Fortress of Solitude is a big, lyrical novel about childhood, interracial friendship, pop culture and Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn. (Its so relentlessly pro-Brooklyn it could have been commissioned by the boroughs tourism bureau.) Most of all, its 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 hed 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, theyre advance wiggers.
Dylans 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 its tagging and drugs. Their friendship is of the adolescent kind thats 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 Solitude definitely 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 books 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 Dylans mom disappears when hes a young boy. (Lethems best-known novel before this was called Motherless Brooklyn.) Still, its 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 Lethems 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, were told that Dylan receives an A for a paper on Faulkner in college, its as if wed 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 theres an explanation on offer, its that, starting in junior high, the young Dylan is motivated by fear. Should he flunk his exams, hell have to go to an even worse school, where hell 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 doesnt 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.
After a while, I found myself asking some annoyingly basic questions. Such as, Why doesnt Dylan miss his mother more? Why does Lethem give us so few scenes between Dylan and his father, even after the mother is gone? And the biggest one of all: Given that hes bright (hes classified as having very superior intellectual ability), why doesnt Mingus display any interest in studying, or getting into a good school like Dylan? (More to the point, Why doesnt Lethem raise this even as an issue, a possibility?) Youd think, given the books lack of any voiced alternative, that for Mingus taking drugs and dropping out is as inevitable as eating and sleeping. As it is, practically the only alternative viewpoint in several hundred pages consists of one line delivered by Dylans exasperated (black) girlfriend years later in 1999. Going through Dylans CD collection, which she rather harshly ridicules for being self-indulgently depressing, she comes to a disc by Syl Johnson titled Is It Because Im Black? Maybe youre just a loser, Syl, she retorts.
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Perhaps shes on to something. Lethem is caught between thinking the street culture of the 70s and early 80s was unbeatably hip this was the era, as he is still reminding us on Page 510, when a top-to-bottom burner [a subway car completely covered in one all-encompassing graffito] blazed through a subway station, renovating the world for an instant, when school-yard turntables were powered by a cord run from a street lamp, when juice just flowed and acknowledging that it was also destructive. Even that one fragment of a sentence raises questions. In what sense did graffiti-covered subway cars renovate the world anyway, even for an instant? (If anything was renovated, it was the subway cars themselves, which were eventually replaced by the ink-resistant Japanese models youll find in New York today.) And as for all that flowing juice, well, thats what juice does when youre young. The point is, where does it flow? And if its straight to the police station, maybe youve got a problem that needs discussing. But somehow, neither Lethem nor his characters ever get round to the big powwow.
Lethem, one senses, desperately wants to hold on to the conviction that something culturally momentous and worthwhile came out of his teenage Brooklyn milieu. In the second half of the book, which takes place when Dylan is a 35-year-old rock critic living in California (Mingus, along with most of his black friends, is in jail), you can feel him grapple with issues raised earlier in the book, but its too little, too late. There are many terrific things in The Fortress of Solitude, particularly the scenes of early childhood, but too often the book is written as if people have no power to choose. Theyre just fated to be a certain way (whites go to college, blacks go to jail), not fully formed human beings with a coherent inner life so much as, in the novels closing words, gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream. Which is one reason why this novel is greater in its gnarly, scribbling parts than in its disappointingly cipherish whole.
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE | By JONATHAN LETHEM Doubleday | 528 pages | $26 hardcover