The Fortress of Solitude
Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 09-16-2003
470 Pages; $26.00
Date Reviewed: 08-18-03
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003
To put the world, the whole world, and nothing less upon the printed page; to bring a life, a whole life and nothing less between the lines; to make a maze of words, at the center of which resides a human soul; for this, writers have sold their souls, forfeit their families and left behind legions of readers. The goal can't be easily described, nor should it. You can hope only to hold the work in your mind, for that perfect moment as the last lines, the final words sail into your memory. The balancing act of breadth and detail, of character and setting, of sweep and scope, each element must be perfectly placed on the pages. Passion must be tempered with patience. Not many novels adopt this destination, knowingly or unknowingly. Fewer still arrive at the point so perfectly portrayed in 'The Fortress of Solitude'. Jonathan Lethem has the skill to grasp thirty years of American history and compose from them a story of individuals that encompasses within it the wider world. From Brooklyn to Berkeley and back, it follows the lives of a white boy and his black best friend, their families and friends, their concrete world, starting in the 1970's and finishing in the present day. Lethem's language brings their world alive and nothing less.
Dylan is the son of Abraham Ebdus, an experimental artist, and his wife Rachel, a no-nonsense hippie mother. They're the second white family to move into the Gowanus neighborhood of South Brooklyn. Isabel Vendle, a bent, bitter old woman, has decided that she will turn this ghetto-in-waiting into an upscale community, Boerum Hill. Renting a house to the Ebdus family is the first step. Dylan, named after the singer, soon meets the boy who will be his best friend, Mingus Rude. Mingus is the son of Barrett Rude Junior, who made his mark on American soul and pop with his band The Subtle Distinctions. He's bringing up his son alone; soon so is Abraham, when Rachel bops off into a hippie escape-from-reality fantasy. She occasionally sends Dylan postcards with poetry signed "Running Crab". Both children are part of a motherless Brooklyn that eats up boys and spits them out, mostly but not always alive.
'The Fortress of Solitude' is not a whit like the tomb of its title. This is a rich, complex and varied novel that transforms Twilight-Zone imagery into urban magic reality. Each of the vast cast of characters is brought to life with careful language and detailed precision. Threading through the years of growing up is a ring that confers upon the boys powers that rightly belong to the superheroes who populate the comic books in their closets. As the 1970's grow torturously into the 1980's, the boys are pulled apart, together, apart, by drugs, their families and by the limited relationships available to black and white boys in Boerum Hill. Lethem effortlessly spins the narrative to encompass greater breadth, to dive to deeper depths, to grow with the boys through years of ungainly teenhood into barely competent, almost grown men. There's more than an epic's worth of subjects covered in loving detail and lovely language. From the birth of doo-wop to the def years of Old School rap, from Genesis to Brian Eno, music plays in the background and foreground. Lonely artists craft in their garrets, lonely musicians hide four-channel tape machines with treasured tracks under the floorboards next to their supply of crack cocaine. In a moment of terror and confrontation, three generations of black men seal their fates. Over a lifetime of alienated effort, two generations of white men create their lives.
Lethem's novel is not just a novel of American men, but also of the American landscape. If you're unfamiliar with the language, the rhythms, the feel of Brooklyn, it will take you a while to become accustomed to Lethem's language. Be patient. He creates the world of South Brooklyn brick by brick in the reader's mind. You can play stoopball, get yoked by the neighborhood bullies, sit on the brownstone steps in your dressing gown, throw tags up on impossible bridges as if you can fly. You will fly in Lethem's novel; you will become an invisible but an integral part of the world he creates. When you journey to prison or college, when you choose chess or stoopball, you'll feel the warm sun or the cold concrete. There's a visit to prison that you'll never forget. Lethem gives all the details that you've never seen in any other work of fiction. It's a journey into a labyrinth from which there is no escape, but within which there are plenty of monsters. Idle, eternal students at Berkeley, men who grow older but don't mature will join you in the queue at the corner grocery, left coast or right. Your choice; this is after all, America.
But Lethem doesn't simply tour America here; he inhabits it, he gives it form and he gives it a plot. The friendship, the relationship between boys and men, fathers and sons shines through to create moments of hilarity, honesty and emotion. A science fiction convention might conceal the odd shard of blind artistic integrity as well as some hearty laughter. Women are not Lethem's focus here; they are the objects of men's attention, but they leave their men behind to flail. Men don't find women; women find men, and maybe the men don't screw it up every time. Women are as present when they are absent as they are when they are in the same room, sharing the same sunlit porchscape but somehow standing outside it, beyond it.
The relations between blacks and whites and Puerto Ricans create the currents of control and despair, of self-fear and self-loathing that drive the characters to extremes. You'll learn what it's like to be yoked, you'll try to yoke one of your buddies in some ineffectual gesture of solidarity with the novel. We are all yoked in one manner or another. We are all forced to do something that we'd rather not do, we're all asked for money we'd rather not hand over. Black men in America are halfway to prison by the time they're ten years old. Whether or not they complete the journey is more a matter of chance than of choice. Lethem's powerful points are utterly, perfectly apparent to the invisible, flying reader who haunts the pages.
'The Fortress of Solitude' is not a superhero hideout. It's the brick-by-brick neighborhood that surrounds each of us. It's the whole cloth of American society in the last thirty years, wrapped in Lethem's powerful maze of words and minds. This is the whole world and nothing less on the printed page. If you can read, you are the superhero, you are invisible; you can fly.