|Illustration by Young Chun|
A bildungsroman for the hipster set, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is 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 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 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.
After a while, I found myself asking some annoyingly basic questions. Such as, Why doesn’t 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 he’s bright (he’s classified as having “very superior intellectual ability”), why doesn’t Mingus display any interest in studying, or getting into a good school like Dylan? (More to the point, Why doesn’t Lethem raise this even as an issue, a possibility?) You’d think, given the book’s 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 Dylan’s exasperated (black) girlfriend years later in 1999. Going through Dylan’s CD collection, which she rather harshly ridicules for being self-indulgently depressing, she comes to a disc by Syl Johnson titled Is It Because I’m Black? “Maybe you’re just a loser, Syl,” she retorts.
Perhaps she’s 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 you’ll find in New York today.) And as for all that flowing juice, well, that’s what juice does when you’re young. The point is, where does it flow? And if it’s straight to the police station, maybe you’ve 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 it’s 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. They’re 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 novel’s 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