Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude, is a strange piece of work—an extremely, almost brutally realist memoir that halfway through veers into the territory of the fantastic to become something of a superhero story.
That is jumping ahead though. The novel starts in a distinct place and time, as real as the floor beneath your feet. The neighborhood known as Boerum Hill has been a chic, comfortable, and decidedly gentrified place to leave for over a decade now. Its streets are lined with million-dollar brownstones. But if you know what you’re looking for, you can still find the Boerum Hill that Lethem’s protagonist, Dylan Ebdus (yes, named after that Dylan) grew up in. Because those million dollar homes sit across from the Gowanus Housing Projects and the area was labeled a Superfund cleanup site in 2010.
Dylan is an inwardly oriented white kid, the son of a reclusive painter/filmmaker father and a manic hippie mother, who have decided to make Dylan a part of their experiment to homestead in the midst of what, at that time, was a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. They send him off as an emissary into the public school system, and then abandon him to what may come—literally by his mother who leaves the family for destinations unknown, and figuratively by his inaccessible father. Dylan retains the scars of this abandonment throughout his life.
His whiteness is forever his defining trait in this milieu. He is constantly the target of “yoking”—being robbed—but more importantly, feels adrift and both above and below his surroundings. But then he gets a new neighbor—Mingus Rude (yes, named after that Mingus), the son of an artist himself (a former soul singer fallen into a cocaine haze) and also motherless. The two become strange bedfellows, developing a deep and intransient friendship based on a shared intelligence, broken family background, and connection to what we might now call nerd culture that uneasily (almost) transcends race.
This is what the story is about, more or less: how a couple of kids dealt with the racial tensions of Brooklyn in the 70s—its most desperate decade, when anyone who could was fleeing to Jersey, Long Island, or White Plains, and things seemed about to come apart at the seams. Dylan and Mingus together form a small, sad, and ultimately heartbreaking bulwark against this torrent of despair. They merge in surprising ways: both obsess over graffiti culture, and become two halves of a single tag, DOSE, and at one point, they experiment sexually with each other.
What is clear as the Bay Area light Dylan eventually finds himself bathed in is that his creator, Lethem, knows the physical and metaphysical topography of Brooklyn like the back of his hand. He effortlessly sends Dylan and Mingus from the Dean Street stoops to underneath the Brooklyn Bridge to late-night DJ rap battles where the PA’s are powered by “juice” stolen from lampposts. Brooklyn is clearly and lovingly rendered throughout, warts and all. This is most engaging part of the novel, and it colors the second half (where Lethem switches from third- to first-person narrative) so much so that the latter part feels like more of a coda than a section in its own right.
Nevertheless, the path the story takes is compelling. Ultimately, Dylan’s whiteness confers its societal benefits and he ends up at U.C. Berkeley, whereas Mingus is left to struggle through the 80s crack epidemic that rages in lower-class New York and the rising incarceration rates of the 90s wrought by Giuliani. Neither fully gives up on the idealistic version the one has for the other though, and this informs how each deals with the situations they find themselves. Lethem turns us on Dylan—the once cerebral boy becomes a narcissistic writer (a slight self-flagellation forced by Lethem on himself?), and ends up with a black girlfriend who he doesn’t quite love as much as he does the idea of having a black girlfriend. Mingus, in jail, suffers eloquently, beautifully. Talented, hip, and smart, he gives up hope, and leaves the reader hopeless in his wake.
Then there is the elephant in the room. Midway through the novel, Dylan and Mingus find a magical ring that can confer certain comic book powers to some who utilize it. These are definitely the strangest sections of the novel, and can be jarring, when compared to the stark realism of the rest of the novel. Yes, the connection is there—both Mingus and Dylan are comic book aficionados, and both seek to be saviors of the other. But this aspirational superhero-hood is a Batman that surpasses even what Chris Nolan can do to him—this “hero’s” powers are sick and decrepit, fallen and broken, much like the Brooklyn Lethem simultaneously calls back to and hopes never returns.
What holds the novel together is not the ring (though it seems that Lethem expected this to be the adhesive device), but Brooklyn, which, as any Brooklyn native can tell you, never leaves, whether you end up in Berkeley or in Sing Sing Penitentiary.