The Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem reviewed
The Fortress of Solitudeby Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday, 511 pp., $26
By the time a shot is fired in the brownstone that coke-addled soul singer Barrett Rude Jr. shares with his coke-addled teenage son, Mingus, and his ex-convict preacher papa, Barrett Rude Sr., on the gentrificationally stillborn streets of Brooklyn's Gowanus neighborhood, friend and neighbor Dylan Ebdus is scrambling out the front door, just days away from departing for a Bennington-like campus in Vermont. It is 1981, and we have known Dylan since he was 6, Mingus almost as long. It is p.292, the end only of part one of a three-part novel, and it is the moment when a story filled up till then with the lunch-money violence of youth (even a New York City youth) hits an unsurprising, yet still distressing, pitch: Things have turned serious.
Jonathan Lethem, it turns out, has gotten serious, too. The drop from 1999's Motherless Brooklyn to 2001's This Shape We're In, the latter of which should be understood as a "novella" with "Acknowpologies to David Gates and Franz Kafka," was a sharp, slick, and disappointing one for the youngish, music-savvy American author. This Shape We're In, half-hearted genre-aspiring bullshit by a big name with a big bucket of gas for the big McSweeney's forest fire, was a larkish tale of exploring the human body from the inside. At $9 and 55 pp., it came cheap, it read cheap, and it broke cheap. And it was, ironically, the beginning of the end for McSweeney's relevance, even their cred, as it were.
It's easy, now, a handful of years after that outfit's absolute, awkward, right-door-wrong-door entrance -- it's a vaccine lab making the cure-all, it's a Kids in the Hall disco! -- to make fun of them (and easier to make fun of Dave Eggers and his Hearstian urge to teach children the art of reading, writing, and very possibly arithmetic -- that third one, at this point, he is undoubtedly quite adept at, far more, based on a recent reading of his worldly You Shall Know Our Velocity!, than he is at that second one) and of Lethem's right-door-wrong-door decision to join in for a bit. But it's also easy for McSweeney's allegiants to make fun of Random House (some unaware that the publisher's paperback imprint, Vintage, puts out the occasional McSweeney's journal), where, while imprinted with Doubleday, Lethem had worked up fiction deserving of a chamber in the castle or a cabin in the yacht or a walk with the borzoi, the kind that wins alternately remote and cozy awards and has a remarkable, scenic trajectory. The kind that matters, like Miramax movies with a little less money and a little more talent.
But that fiction -- the kind with the Roth-like 20th-century American momentum mixed with hip, often hard-boiled language -- Chandler on Ecstasy getting a kiss on each cheek from Patricia Highsmith and Ursula Le Guin at the same time -- was genre-aspiring, too, obviously. A detective with Tourette's? Killer kangaroos and sophisticated rabbits? Alice in Wonderland reduced to cold physics? But it was better. They weren't larks, for one. They had problems, might have been a bit contrived in order to keep up with Donna and D.F.W. and later Franzen or Colson Whitehead, perhaps, but they promised something very, very big.
Word on the street is that Lethem's eighth fiction is about gentrification, about a rich old woman named Isabel Vendle, dead by p.63, who wants to turn Gowanus into "Boernum Hill," and does. It's not. It is. Gentrification is as gentrification does, and this novel is by a white kid, about a white kid living on a predominantly black and Latino Brooklyn block like a baby mole might live on a farm field in the mid-South predominantly worked by slaves or migrants that'll someday relatively soon become a formidable golf course and country club absent of anyone of color. Lethem is writing about the white and black -- the Jewish and black, most notably -- and he has set out to make sure that it's once again OK to do so. Or, he has set out to write a story, deliberately and artfully, more configured than plotted, mournful but casual, an American story, and the American story is race, after all, a hand-painted poisonous arrow on fire and flying through pages and pages of American arts and letters for two centuries. Lethem, here, later along that arc next to Ellison and D.H. Lawrence and Paula Fox and J.C. Oates and Bellow and even Suzan-Lori Parks, even Amy-fucking-Tan, has, like many others, chosen the lives of children to tell this story.
It begins (third person) and ends (first person) with the peculiar and perceptive Dylan (while interluding with fictional liner notes for a retrospective collection of Barrett Rude Jr. with the Subtle Distinctions songs, in the most conspicuous instance of the protagonist as Lethem's alter ego), named after the singer by his activist, nearly unhinged mother, Rachel, and his anti-social artist father, Abraham. Contrary to popular delusion, not all of us have lived in Brooklyn; Lethem has, and the clustered kids' universe he evokes with Dean Street and its environs is as convincing a portrayal as one could ask for. This novel is like a time capsule, breathtaking in its inventory of preteen and adolescent rites, rites with changing brand names and traded shortstops, but rites the same in any language or era. Pro-Keds, Marvel Comics, stoopball. It's a hot-air balloon of pop and underground culture that might never land. Abraham, for instance, insists on Dylan's attendance at a panel honoring Stan Brakhage in the Cooper Union basement. There, the kid is exposed to names like Fischinger and Ruttman; there, the name Disney is a joke. Rachel, before she flees, before she sends rather warped motherly advice via postcards, wears a weathered Brooklyn Dodgers cap and tells her young son, "Children like Ringo. ... Boys do. Girls like Paul. He's sexy. You'll understand."
Dylan, in fact, understands little until he meets Mingus, the kind of kid we all learn from: smooth, smart, funny, and for the most part warm, willing to take a long-haired white boy under his wing -- or, later, under his superhero's cape as 16-year-old vigilante Aeroman -- and mold him. He calls his father by his first name and his absent mother "that lying bitch." He's "the million-dollar kid" after a custody battle. Minutes after their first encounter, after Mingus explains what a hair pick is and shows off his father's gold records, "Dylan wondered how long he'd be able to keep him to himself." Not very. The times spent with them together are as Tom-and-Huck as it gets -- pure, moving pleasure as they listen to funk records; talk about Fresh Air Fund girls while stonedly jerking each other off; and graffiti walls, buses, and even a sleeping street drunk's back with the tag "DOSE" -- but are also few and far between: Despite being neighbors, they often go weeks, months, and eventually years without seeing each other.
When it really is years later, at the end of the 20th century, things are not particularly good for either. Dylan, who by this point has lived the life of a hipster king -- a white kid who grew up with minorities and then graduated Stuyvesant and "Camden"; a bagman for a punk band; the son of a painter who not only has been working on a film for most of his adult life, but who also wins Hugo awards for his paperback art; a music critic with a gorgeous black girlfriend -- finds, like most of us, that childhood really was where it's at, while Mingus has found himself in those most unenviable of circumstances for the brilliant, and, more to the point, promising: living a worthless life, but worse.
"This, like his choice of slate, became institutional, so much that one day Lonnie and Marilla scoffingly insisted it had always been done that way, and Dylan's authorship of the double-ringed winner's circle was permanently obscured," Lethem writes of the boy's mastery of the street-game skully early on in The Fortress of Solitude. "Maybe to perfect a thing was to destroy it." Maybe. If so, then the coming-of-age novel (which is an insufficient term here; this is a coming-of-life novel), and perhaps contemporary American fiction itself (or at least American fiction currently in practice), has come dangerously close to being wrecked into oblivious bits, and with it Lethem swept into literary obscurity. Both notions, I think, are doubtful. Instead, let's think of this -- the finest novel of the year, by far, and likely of the past five -- as a 50th-birthday gift to The Adventures of Augie March, that greatest of all fine American novels. Lethem has Bellow's style: his singing, trilling, soaring, dancing, skipping, breathless (albeit somber) command of the English language amplified with the uncanny ability to convey empathy and idea. He is also, all grown up but still youngish and music-savvy, the serious author of the serious kind of book that is better than a movie, better than a symphony, better than a play, and better than a painting, because it is all of them. Or, like childhood, or us as children, it can be anything you want it to be.