The Fortress of Solitude

by Jonathan Lethem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2132

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 evident in one of the book’s most moving interludes: a summer Dylan spends as a Fresh-Air Fund child with a family in Vermont. Dylan has a romance with the young daughter of the family he stays with, but in a devastating moment of self-revelation he discovers that he has less in common with her than with his Dean Street roots.

The close bond between Dylan and Mingus is expressed most intimately in a shared fantasy of transcendence inspired by their love of comic books. A black derelict who claims he can fly gives Dylan a ring supposedly endowed with magic powers. Using the ring for airborne feats of derring-do, Dylan and Mingus invent a superhero persona, Aeroman, which they adopt to fight petty crime in the neighborhood. Though the fantasy of the superhero sequences is ambiguous at first—it is never clear whether the boys really fly or if they are just immersed in flights of fancy—it does not seem inconsistent with the stylized reality of Brooklyn seen through Dylan’s eyes or with his romanticized relationship with Mingus.

Lethem’s depiction of Dylan’s life is lyrical and moving, a colorful fusion of childhood impressions, gritty set pieces, song lyrics, childhood games and rituals, racial politics, street lingo, and pop culture references. Its attention to the trends and fashion statements of the time—soul, punk, and the nascent hip-hop culture, which Dylan and Mingus absorb and discard—provides the reader with both a dynamic glimpse at how children assimilate diverse and even dichotomous influences into their personalities, and a capsule history of urban culture in the 1970’s. The romance of Dylan’s youthful perceptions offers a buffer against the painful experiences that inevitably intrude. Even as Dylan and Mingus find a common ground that unites them, others in their lives experience an increasing disillusionment and alienation that seems magnified by the fragile charade of upscale Boerum Hill. Abraham, to make ends meet, takes commercial work as a painter of covers for science-fiction paperbacks. Everett spends most of his remaining money to feed a growing drug habit that estranges him from his industry, the neighborhood, and his family. Arthur Lomb, another middle-class white child in the neighborhood, squanders his considerable potential to fit in with the street crowd, providing an example of a fate Dylan might have chosen. The whirlpool of ghetto delinquency, on which Dylan manages to stay afloat, even seduces Mingus, who moves away from Dylan and into the drug scene. The seeming final break comes when Mingus betrays their Aeroman fantasy. By the end of the novel’s first part, Dylan, who has moved on to a better high school, where his background gives him unusual street credibility, has all but turned his back on the old neighborhood and on Mingus. In a scene that plays out like a sad divorce settlement, Dylan buys back from his drug-addled friend all of the comics they used to read together.

A sober mood colors events in the second half of the novel, which telescopes characters twenty years into the future. Dylan is now living in California, working as a freelance rock critic whose impressive vocabulary of pop music idioms makes him a top consultant for repackaging old music for revival labels. In fact, he has written comprehensive liner notes for a retrospective of Everett Rude’s songs (reproduced in full as an interlude between the book’s first and second halves). Dylan considers it his best work, but his colleagues criticize its superficiality. Indeed, there is a glibness to the mature Dylan that clashes with the innocence and vulnerability that shaped his youthful sensibility in the book’s first half.

Although Dylan has moved on from Dean Street, his uncommon childhood continues to assert itself through his adult lifestyle choices. His past has made him smug about the circles in which he travels. “I’d spent fifteen or twenty years being angry at rappers, black and white equally, for their pretense, for claiming the right to wear street experiences, real or feigned, like badges, when mine were unshown.” His black girlfriend, whose upwardly mobile upbringing is the reverse image of his own, realizes that the childhood Dylan clings to has made him aloof and cynical. “What happenedto you?” she chastizes. “Your childhood is some privileged sanctuary you live in all the time, instead of here with me.”

The complications that Dylan’s Dean Street background has created for his adult self crystallize on a trip he makes to see his father honored at a science-fiction convention. Estranged from his past and the promise it once held, Abraham Ebdus inhabits a private demesne as solitary and lonely as Dylan’s. Dylan learns that many other friends from Dean Street followed similar trajectories, including Mingus, who has become a career prisoner in an upstate New York penitentiary. In a revelatory moment, Dylan acknowledges the pain of his unhealed separation from Mingus, “the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover.” Scheming to free Mingus and redeem their relationship, he dusts off the magic Aeroman ring and passes it to his friend during a prison visit. The plan fails miserably, and the tragic results signal the end of the Dean Street idyll and the failure of childhood dreams to transcend a reality grounded in poverty, crime, and inherent differences between the races.

The Fortress of Solitude is not a neatly organized tale; rather, it is as episodic and open-ended as might be expected for a story whose plot is an individual life. Its power lies in its evocative rendering of Brooklyn as a kaleidoscope of activity and energy filtered through the perceptions of an impressionable child. Lethem does not romanticize the stark realities of the inner city so much as he finds a hip natural poetry in its dingy colors, bland facades, and most unremarkable aspects. Although he has written memorably on Brooklyn in Girl in Landscape (1998) and especiallyMotherless Brooklyn (1999), his treatment of the city in this novel pulses with a vitality that suggests private memories and authentic experience.

Especially in its Brooklyn-centered first part, The Fortress of Solitude has a Dickensian sweep and breadth. At the same time, its adolescent characters call to mind intensely personal novels as different as Carson MacCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which use the pain and alienation of their youthful narrators as a lens through which events are viewed. The Fortress of Solitude also evokes a great tradition of American “buddy” novels on a continuum running from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), with which it has strong affinities, up through and beyond William Wharton’s Birdy(1979), which pair seemingly incongruous characters separated by birthright and temperament. Lethem’s portrait of Dylan and Mingus as friends whose relationship is bound in a complex of shared fantasy, common dreams, and innocent sexuality is one of the more persuasive fictional treatments of adolescence in recent memory. His novel has garnered comparisons to Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) for its meld of private nostalgia and popular culture, and it is likely to be remembered as one of the first and most perceptive treatments of the melting pot of American cultural experience that has influenced the generation that came of age in the post-Vietnam War era.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1710-1711.

Library Journal 128, no. 12 (July 15, 2003): 123.

The Nation 277, no. 13 (October 27, 2003): 33-36.

New Republic 229, no. 15/16 (October 13-20, 2003): 38-44.

The New York Times, September 16, 2003, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 153, no. 52613 (September 21, 2003): 7-8.

People 60, no. 12 (September 22, 2003): 55.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 24 (June 16, 2003): 47-48.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 2003, p. M1.

The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2003, p. W9.

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