Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is a very good book. It’s been about a week or more since I finished it, and I’ve been ruminating on what to say about it. Mainly, I think it captures the experience of growing up as a ‘whiteboy’ in black urban America in the 1970s really well. I lived the same story, in my case, Chicago from 1960-67, and Oakland 1967-1974. The daily shakedowns, the omnipresent fear of physical assault, backed up often enough by the real thing, the wheedling insistence to “show it to me” (referring to whatever you might have had, from money to a radio to your lunch, that the assailant will soon dispossess you of), Lethem is spot on in his characterizations. I think he’s got a fantastic ear and ability to transcribe the moment-to-moment fear and intimidation that I knew as normal life while I was 5-17 years old. He also does a fine job of capturing the quiet isolation that a child lives in when the surrounding culture repeatedly reinforces his difference, his inferiority.
The book surprised me when about 60% through it suddenly jumped forward to the mid-1990s. But as soon as I adjusted to it, it made great sense, and actually makes the story much stronger. Because by doing so, we get a much more complete and realistic picture of the deep racist dynamics that permeate the U.S. The once downtrodden whiteboy (Dylan) has escaped his subordinate status, via college and a writing career. But his former idol and best friend (Mingus) is now incarcerated, his life’s horizon much reduced by life-long drug abuse that his own father, a once-popular singer, introduced him to.
The symmetry between the youthful relationship and the larger truth about society that turns the youthful relationship upside down (and puts it “rightside up” by the racist standards of our society) is striking. There are a number of side stories that enrich Fortress of Solitude, from Dylan’s runaway hippie-radical mom, who disappears early in the book, to his peculiar father, obsessively painting film cells while grudgingly earning money by doing far-out science fiction book covers. The New England college experience gets a shot, the shallow insipidity of the late 20th century entertainment business is lampooned, nostalgia and popular music are explored.
The weird flaw that the plot keeps leaning on throughout the book has to do with a magic ring. Suffice to say that I found it a frustratingly silly device, and it really detracts from several passages that are otherwise pretty smart and revealing. The plot’s climax depends on the ring, unfortunately, but I don’t think it ruins the book. It just made me wonder how else he might have touched on so many important social insights, having his characters zig-zagging through the NY penal system, the public schools, New England boarding schools and colleges, Berkeley, Hollywood, and more.
The Fortress of Solitude is nevertheless quite a tour de force, and well worth reading.