At the very least, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is a poignant coming-of-age tale that depicts the headlong crash of childhood innocence against the hard realities of adult experience. This sprawling, colorful novel also has ambitions greater than its lyrical account of a young boy’s growth to maturity in Brooklyn in the 1970’s. Through a story that spans several decades in the lives of a large and sympathetically drawn cast of diverse characters, Lethem explores issues of race, class, and culture that have defined much of the urban United States in the aftermath of the 1960’s. The disappointments and failed dreams of his characters are reflections of the larger problems and dislocations of American society.
Lethem focuses this wide-angle perspective of modern American life through the experiences of Dylan Ebdus, a young boy whose childhood is modeled somewhat on the author’s experience as a white minority growing up in a racially diverse urban neighborhood. Inextricable from his portrait of Dylan is his depiction of Brooklyn, “a geographic form of insanity” whose sights, sounds, and slices of life seem exotic and thrilling when refracted through Dylan’s child’s-eye view. Brooklyn assumes an almost human character in the story and is as influential as any parent in the growth and development of the novel’s young characters.
The narrative is divided into two main parts, the first set during the 1970’s, just as gentrification is transforming seedier parts of Brooklyn into habitable neighborhoods for middle-class families. The Gowanus section, situated between the more attractively named Cobble Hill and Park Slope, has just been renamed Boerum Hill by Isabel Vendle, descendant of an upper-middle-class family and one of several semi-allegorical figures in the story who represent processes of change and development. The name Boerum Hill is intended to evoke New York’s Dutch heritage, but Isabel’s rechristening of her “encampment” to distinguish it from the nearby Gowanus housing projects cannot hide the fact that the neighborhood is an inner-city ghetto where white families are greatly outnumbered by working-class black and Latino families. Though inevitable, the gentrification process is gradual, and the neighborhood retains its schizoid personality for most of the novel.
The identity crisis of the neighborhood is mirrored in the experiences of two of its families. The Ebduses, who rent half a house on Dean Street, are one of the first white families to settle there. Abraham Ebdus, a self-absorbed artist, has recently shifted his career from painting to making an abstract art film. His wife, Rachel, is a progressive spirit with roots in the 1960’s counterculture who supports the family with a part-time job. “Raised by a monk and a hippie, each of whom stood willfully outside any hierarchy of class” is the way Dylan describes his bohemian upbringing. Rachel prefers integration to Isabel’s dream of gentrification, with the result that Dylan, although offered a chance to enroll in private school through Isabel’s influence, is one of only three white children to attend the neighborhood public school.
The other family is the Rudes, a black father and son recently arrived from Philadelphia. Everett Rude, the father, is a former rhythm-and-blues singer whose meteoric career as lead vocalist for The Subtle Distinctions made him wealthy enough to buy custody of his son, Mingus, from his white wife after the breakup of their marriage. Temperamental and distracted, Everett spends most of his time lounging around their apartment, disparaging attempts by record industry personnel to get him back into music. Mingus, an articulate and street-smart boy, is Dylan’s age, although a grade ahead in school.
Mingus and Dylan become friends, and the changing circumstances of their lives draw them increasingly closer. Soon after they meet, Rachel deserts her family, and the Ebduses come to parallel the already motherless Rude family. Mingus takes Dylan under his wing in an almost brotherly fashion, protecting him against the worst abuses of the neighborhood kids and introducing him to a realm of experiences largely closed off to someone of Dylan’s pedigree. Among these is graffiti tagging. Mingus achieves local notoriety with his signature, “Dose,” and encourages Dylan to use it rather than invent one of his own. The shared name makes Dylan and Mingus seem like different aspects of the same personality. Dylan acknowledges that “he’s been allowed to merge his identity in this way with the black kid’s, to lose his funkymusicwhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are both Dose, no more and no less. A team, a united front, a brand name, an idea.”
Dylan and Mingus share more common childhood pursuits, too—playing stoopball, listening to music, reading comic books (the novel’s title is taken from a Superman comic)—and under Mingus’s influence (or, at the very least, the neighborhood culture that Mingus embodies) Dylan comes to seem more like his friend, a product of racially mixed heritage. Dylan embraces the street society of Gowanus more than the upward mobility of Boerum Hill, and this is painfully...
(The entire section is 2132 words.)