The Fortress of Solitude

I’ve finally finished my first book in the 2011 “To Be Read” pile challenge: “The Fortress Of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem. It’s hard to express how much of an impression this book made on me–“Fortress” is one of the most interesting and arresting books that I have ever read.

For a long while the book languished on my shelves, “a kid grows up in 70’s Brooklyn” I kept thinking to myself. Yet the story is so much more. Yes, the main character Dylan Ebdus is a kid who grows up in Brooklyn in the 1970’s. The story is much greater than that: race relations, comic books, graffiti, superheroes and their powers, magical realism, education: from elementary through grad school, music: soul, funk, rock, punk, the life of the artist, the life of the art critic, fandom, drugs, divorce, crime, corrections, sex, murder, family dysfunction, friendship–the book trains its eye on a wide swath of life.

I am only 4 years older than the Dylan character and he experienced many of the things that pre-occupied myself as a youngster, yet from a radically different perspective–the urban life he lived was certainly much different from my cloistered suburb. That being said, Lethem has an amazingly astute take on the folks he ran across that did come from the same kind of background as I did–especially when talking about his time at Stuyvesant HS–the kind of academically rigorous high school that acts as a feeder to the Ivy League. His take on how even these schools can produce students more concerned about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll had me nodding vigorously in agreement and laughing out loud. His take on “Camden College” (what is most assuredly Bennington College) could be a novella on its own, a low-key masterpiece on class, race, entitlement and higher education. The discussions of rock bands and the infinitesimally detailed parsing of the meaning of obscure bands could have been tape recorded in any number of empty-beer-can littered, smoke-filled dorm rooms where I was present in the ’70’s and ’80’s.

The best way I can describe the organizing principle of this book is like a map on the internet–the lens starts to investigate the characters’ lives in their homes, pulls out to the sidewalk and the street and gradually expands its field of vision into the wider world. As Dylan grows older, he starts to see the connections between the everyday life he experienced as a child and the issues in real life that have a great impact on his world–racism, poverty, urban segregation, divorce. I was especially taken by Lethem’s meditations on the intensity that Dylan studied the games that children play on their streets while growing up, just to figure out a way to fit in. What is even more touching is how that world seems to disappear from them, even just a few short years later.

Dylan is never really able to come to terms with his friendship with his neighbor Mingus Rude. They are mirror opposites in many ways: white/black; introverted/extroverted, not popular/popular. They also share many obsessions: graffiti, comics, music. They both come from families without mothers–both fathers are obsessed with their art and provide little, if any attention to the boys. Their lives diverge and pull together many times throughout the book–even as their situations become as different as can be–Dylan on the fringes of academia and art, Mingus in prison.

I will be thinking about, and re-reading, “The Fortress of Solitude” for many years.

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