THE FORTRESS OF SOLITTUDE
by Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
For someone who is of the same approximate age as author Jonathan Lethem or his protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, his new novel Fortress of Solitude is a strange combination of nostalgia and unfamiliarity. The nostalgia, naturally enough, comes from the shared cultural experiences of the age, brought together by marketers and television, while the unfamiliarity comes from the Brooklyn street life which will be as alien to many of Lethemís readers as any planet in science fiction.
Beginning in the 1960s, Lethem follows Dylan Ebdus, the son of a painter, as he makes his way through the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill, the lone white kid among a sea of black and Latino faces. Dylan masters living on the street, accepting the occasional yoking, or mugging, by his neighbors, and becoming friends with Mingus Rude, a black boy a few years older than him whose father is a noted, if underachieving, musician.
The first section of the book mostly sets the scene and is written in the third person. Although Dylan is the protagonist and Lethem follows his life and activities closely, Lethem also manages to keep the reader from knowing Dylan particularly well, thereby highlighting the boyís loner status in the Boerum Hill social hierarchy. What Lethem fails to show in this section is why Dylan ultimately succeeds when his intelligent friend Arthur Lomb (who is also white) takes an different, and less successful path.
Perhaps Dylanís first hint that he might be able to escape the poverty of Boerum Hill is his discovery of Anton X. Doilly, a man who possesses a ring which allows him to fly. Doilly bequeaths the ring to Dylan, who shares it with Mingus to create the avenging Aeroman, a character who fails both Mingus and Dylan. Nevertheless, the ring remains a part of Dylan that he canít release, just as he canít escape his Brooklyn heritage.
The reader doesnít really get to feel as if he knows Dylan until the final section of the novel, which is related in the first person by Dylan as he nears forty as a reasonably successful music critic. Now living in Berkeley, California, he can never fully disassociate himself from his past growing up in Brooklyn. The reader is allowed to get closer to Dylan in this section as he tells of his first stab at college in Camden, Vermont and later his career in California. Not only does Lethem allow the reader to get to know Dylan better, but he also allows Dylan to make discoveries about himself, his father and estranged mother, and, perhaps most importantly, Mingusís family.
What begins as a novel of nostalgia turns into a quest for roots which ultimately drives Dylan back to the streets of Brooklyn and his friends from adolescence, not only Mingus and Arthur, but also the thuggish Robert Woolfolk, who delighted in yoking Dylan and only spared Dylan worse fates by the narrowest of margins. In his search, Dylan discovers just how closely his fate will be linked to Mingus, Arthur and Robert and the forces he had tried to leave behind in Brooklyn.
Lethemís style is a fusion of many writers and still invokes both Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, along with a similarity to contemporary author Neil Gaiman. He successfully paints portraits of Dean Street in Brooklyn, which is as much a character in the books as the people who live on Dylanís block. The reader can empathize with Lethemís cast, not just Mingus, Dylan, and Arthur, but also with Robert and the other toughs who want to rise to the top of their world, but lack any real ambition.
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