[11 September 2003]
Jonathan Lethem has always been a cerebral writer with a junk-culture heart. His novels, such as Gun, with Occasional Music, As She Climbed Across the Table and Motherless Brooklyn, are graced with provocative ideas and pulp genre riffs. His latest novel, The Fortress of Solitude, should formalize his escape from “young, talented writer” into the realm of “heavy-hitting all-star,” in case there was any doubt out there. And yes, that title is a reference to Superman’s arctic retreat.
The Fortress of Solitude will likely extend the streak of recent successful Big Novels, and deservedly so. The main character, Dylan Edbus, is brought as a terrified and lonely child to Brooklyn in the ‘70s by his mother. “Brooklyn was simple compared to his mother.” Rachel Edbus brags into the phone that her son is one of three white kids in the entire school. “Run if you can’t fight,” she tells Dylan, “run and scream fire or rape, be wilder than they are, wear flames in your hair, that’s my recommendation.” Shortly after, Rachel abandons her family, leaving Dylan in the care of his father, an obsessive modernist painter financially and emotionally unprepared for the responsibility.
Lethem, who grew up in Brooklyn, tackles the subject of race without being patronizing or fearful. Dylan spends much of his time wishing for invisibility, but always ready to be spotted as the “white boy,” a phrase that reoccurs so often I’d be surprised if it wasn’t considered as a possible title. Most often, Dylan is yoked - pulled out of his walk with aggressive demands disguised in friendly tones, asked to defend his presence, his whiteness, what he was looking at. Then a dollar is “borrowed.”
Dylan meets one friend, Mingus Rude, the son of Barrett Rude Jr., former lead singer of a moderately successful soul group, The Subtle Distinctions. Mingus has also been abandoned by his mother, a white woman who Mingus believes accepted a million dollar payoff to give up rights to her son. Mingus and Dylan are raised as much by Brooklyn as by their fathers. Like Dylan’s father, Barrett Rude Jr. shuts himself into his home to obsess over unrealized art. Lethem doesn’t slip and turn Mingus into a symbol of “black Brooklyn” or deliver a treacley homily of friends conquering a racial divide. Race is never forgotten, but Lethem never flattens his characters into mere racial symbols. The extended Rude family remain as believable, heart-rending and important to The Fortress of Solitude as Dylan’s.
Lethem nails the communication of young boys, how hours can be spent piecing together the chronology of comic books, while personal information requires only the pass of a football. While Dylan hopes his friendship with Mingus will usher him past middle school beatings, he cannot ask for protection. This terrific characterization occurs within the second triumph that is Lethem’s fluency with the culture of the 70s and early 80s. Lethem has more than just the memory to name-drop, he understands why “Play that Funky Music (White Boy),” graffiti tags, Star Wars and Marvel comics would be important to these kids.
I’ve neglected to mention an element of The Fortress of Solitude. Superpowers. Okay, the kids get powers straight out of comic books. The Fortress of Solitude is steeped in realism with the lone exception of Dylan’s superpowered ring. I’ve put off mentioning this because it will undoubtedly and unfairly become the most talked about part of the book. Every summary, no matter how brief, will mention “Brooklyn youths gets superpowers.” No one should let a lack of interest in comic books or superpowers deter them from reading The Fortress of Solitude. In fact, Dylan’s timid and rare use of the ring struck me as one of the novel’s few slips of believability.
The first half, following through high school, adds Dylan to the list of masterfully created boy heroes in American literature. The second half of the book, narrated by a grown-up Dylan who reconnects in 2003 with the people from his early life, is perhaps less evocative. The Fortress of Solitude switches from an assured third person narrative to Dylan’s more limiting first person voice. In youth, Dylan has the dream of escape and a range of possibilities. As an adult, he retains his confusions about family, responsibility, art and sex and becomes somewhat less interesting as a character. The adult story continues to be tightly plotted and compelling, however. The Fortress of Solitude uses our history, from punk to crack to gentrification, not just for nostalgia’s sake, but to show how these events changed the lives of Mingus and Dylan.
The Fortress of Solitude is a near-masterpiece. The supporting characters are strong, particularly Barrett Rude Jr. and Arthur Lomb, a white kid who instead of trying to be invisible like Dylan tries to be black like Mingus. Lethem applies a fun DeLillo-esque interest to everyday language. “Y’all was a couple of yo’s walking together.” The period detail will send pop-culture geeks into rapture without being extraneous. I say near-masterpiece for a few reasons. I do hope Lethem has a better book in him. (Aren’t authors only supposed to have one masterpiece?) Also, the ring may not add as much as it takes away. The Fortress of Solitude is such a strong and multi-layered novel and works such magic with the powers of the everyday, it doesn’t need a kid with Green Latern’s ring. (Dylan would hate the comparison because, as every boy from the 70s and 80s knows, DC Comics suck.)
There’s no real doubt The Fortress of Solitude will be received as a major novel. It will be talked about in the terms we used for Underworld, The Corrections, White Teeth or Cold Mountain. Some will call it a masterpiece. Mainstream magazines will try to push this book onto people who don’t normally read books. Some will say sure it’s good, but not the best out there. Some long term Lethem fans will feel their turf invaded and say it’s still not as good as his first. If there’s any justice in the book world, The Fortress of Solitude will be successful enough to develop a backlash calling it over-rated. Still, if there’s a better book published this year, we’re all lucky.