||A Review of: The Fortress of Solitude
by Andrew Steinmetz
Dylan Edbus, white, lives on Dean Street, in a mostly black and
Hispanic borough of Brooklyn called Boerum Hill. Not far off, are
the projects, Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus Houses. Growing up, the
surrounding couple of blocks comprise Dylan's universe, and not a
very friendly environment it is. For all intents and purposes, this
whitey is on the moon.
It is the 1970s. Dylan's parents, Rachel, a half-wit hippie, and
Abraham, a reclusive maker of animated film, have moved the eccentric
household into one of the neighbourhood's brownstones. When advised
by a neighbour that Dylan will attend school with children who will
never learn to read-children who will not accept a white boy in
their midst-Rachel nonchalantly responds that this "is a problem
for him to solve." Poor Dylan is a test case, the sole subject
of a social experiment hatched by his mother.
"Underberg", part one of the novel, is spellbinding. Dylan
is immersed in street culture but it is the reader who is baptized
by Lethem, doused in graphic urban sidewalk scenes, each one a
stylized "slice of human graffiti." Lethem is at his
Brooklyn-best as a child anthropologist: kids on the block occupy
social hierarchies, playing games such as kickball, wallball,
spaldeen; they learn the laws of motion and physics, and assimilate
social norms; over time, they fit in (or not), they gain street
credibility (or not) and survival instincts (or they disappear).
Dylan participates in these special olympics, well kind of-achieving
what he can-more or less happy to fade into the scenery, for he is
ever aware of his precarious status.
Soon enough Dylan's mother will disappear (to a hippie commune) and
is never heard of again, excepting a series of cryptic postcards.
At home, Abraham is on his way to becoming a successful, though
self-hating, commercial artist. Limitlessly self-absorbed, he offers
Dylan little more than a roof over his head.
So it's back to the streets for Dylan, to inhabit an antediluvian
world where a sense of dj vu is the operating principle: where Dylan
and his peers act on communal instinct, on "knowledge you
couldn't have guessed you already had."
Lethem writes about childhood with deft fingers, building our belief
in the altered state of ten-year-olds by deconstructing, scene by
scene, the epistemology of his child protagonist. The dreamlike
quality of day-to-day growing up is catching. Lethem describes this
"Sometimes the kids didn't even look at each other. You could
argue for hours about who said what or who was really there when
something important happened. Pretty often it turned out that someone
hadn't been there in the first place. The girls never confirmed
anything for anyone, though you'd supposed they were right there,
watchingdays were full of gaps."
Dylan himself has "a certain translucency, a talent for being
ignored." Yet when he goes to public school, he is put in a
headlock and yoked by the neighbourhood crews and homies to the
accompanying tune of street dialect: "Hey, white boy, come
here. What you laughin' at, fool? Dang. Boys laughin' at his own
Dylan's luck changes the very day (August 29, 1974) he meets Mingus
Rude. "Mingus was a world, an exploding bomb of possibilities."
Mingus is black. He becomes Dylan's best friend and loyal protector,
although he has his own problems, which begin at home. He lives
with his father, a former Motown Artist. Barrett Rude Junior has
gold records to show, but right now, Barrett is a stay-at-home coke
Mingus Rude and Dylan Edbus live parallel lives that intersect for
right and wrong reasons. Mingus skips school and, early on, does
graffiti instead of drugs, but his tag (Dose) is a dead give-away:
he's about to deal his future to drugs. Dylan himself must decide
between a compromised life on the street and living in a Fortress
of Solitude (an allusion to one of his comics and to his father's
At this juncture, Lethem adds something unexpected to the mix. Magic
realism and Aeroman. Aeroman is a local superhero. He is a drunk
named Doily, who wears a cape and a ring and fights crime, jumping
from low rises to surprise muggers. He enters Dylan's consciousness
from out of nowhere, and we, as readers, are just as stunned to
make his acquaintance. Whether or not Aeroman is for real is never
settled for us by Lethem. And if the ring has special or imaginary
powers, none of its magic rubs off on Lethem's prose. The writing
wavers. The proper terminology, I think is maybe realism'.
In time, Dylan and Mingus inherit Aeroman's ring and the cape. They
stop doing graffiti and become superheroes in their own right, using
the Aeroman paraphernalia as back up for their flights of courage.
This is where the book ultimately falls apart. The problem, for the
reader, is one of assimilation. Grafting the ring's magic powers
onto Lethem's ultra specific Brooklyn, proves as difficult as Dylan's
attempt to be assimilated into Boerum Hill in the first place.
Decades pass. As time goes on, punk replaces funk, and Dylan gives
up his homemade Aeroman costume for a black motorcycle jacket, one
of the "Brando-Elvis-Ramones variety."
By the end of "Underberg", Dylan has moved from a subliminal
awareness of his surroundings to a more standard mode, a franchised
adolescence. We leave behind the innocence and the metaphysical
genius in every child, for the mainstream. Lethem has shifted gears,
from the realm of the No-Logo to the marketplace of soundbites.
Unfortunately for the reader, a "reference-peppered palaver
which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk" does not do
for adolescence what Lethem's semi-autistic Americana has done
brilliantly for his childhood.
"Liner Notes", the slim middle section of the novel,
recounts the life and career of Mingus's father, Barrett Rude Junior,
lead vocalist of the Subtle Distinctions. It also segues the reader
into the life of the grown-up Dylan, a rock critic, "enthralled
by negritude," who writes for a company called Remnant Records.
In "Prisonaires", part three of the novel, we enter First
Person Dylan. Real problems arise here. Twenty-something Dylan
treads on thin-air prose: Dylan with a girlfriend, Dylan with a
movie idea, Dylan with a job living in California.
While Dylan goes through some soul searching ("the intricate
boundaries of race and music" are his "obsession and
inheritance"), Mingus is put through the prison system.
Now let's do the math: One-the son of a gold record calibre Motown
artist has a criminal record. And, two-the son of a commercial
artist, is writing liner notes for a label that repackages Motown
for the Big Box boomers.
What are we supposed to think?
That Dylan,white, who never belonged, neither in Brooklyn, nor in
California, has been able to make a go of his life, while Mingus,
black, cut from the fabric of Boerum Hill, didn't stand a chance?
To be fair, the novel isn't as colour coded as all that.
Near the end, Lethem brings in religion. Dylan is Jewish. Most
readers will respond to this with an automatic I knew that/no I
didn't' switchback. Dylan's own girlfriend, Abigail Ponders,
cross-examines the witness for us: "Dylan, I thought you always
said the fact that you were Jewish was, like, the least defining
thing about you."
Coming so late on, the ensuing dialogue which "entertains"
Dylan's Jewishness cannot hide from its own disingenuous complexion.
Like Aeroman's first flight, Dylan's Jewishness doesn't stick, but
it begs the question: since when is a novel set in Brooklyn with a
Jewish protagonist, by a writer with a Jewish mother, not about
If "Underberg", the glorious beginning of the novel, is
any clue, I'd say the answer is when a writer unearths that sweet
chariot, childhood, that swings low beneath the towering distinctions
of race and religion.