The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After winning prizes with Motherless Brooklyn, and taking a turn for the weird with This Shape We’re In, Lethem returns with another mainstream-ish novel, also set in his home borough of Brooklyn.
I’m not sure why it is that this book reminds me of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It’s a whole lot shorter, after all (three hundred-odd pages shorter, in fact), and where DeLillo’s book sprawls to cover a cast of thousands, Lethem’s is tightly focused on one boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 70′s, and the cynical man he becomes. They’re not really similar books at all. And yet, they have something of the same feel– of Serious Authors taking on Big Issues. DeLillo’s book covers the entire Cold War, while Lethem’s sticks to Race in America (as it might be called in a CNN graphic), but you get the same sense of an author out to explore every aspect of his chosen question, even if it requires bending the characters in weird directions from time to time.
This volume follows the life story of Dylan Ebdus, son of a hippie-ish idealistic mother and a distracted artist father, after his family sets up as one of the first white families in the Gowanus neighborhood that gentrification would later re-name Boerum Hill. Dylan grows up in a strange world– a whiteboy in a black neighborhood, and (as his mother proudly notes), one of only three white students in his entire school. After his mother leaves, and his father recedes even further into obsession over his hand-painted abstract film, Dylan is left more or less on his own. A precarious position for a fragile boy, but he’s saved by an odd friendship with Mingus Rude, the son of a washed-up soul singer who moves in down the block. Mingus comes to dominate Dylan’s life, even long after they’ve stopped seeing each other regularly (Dylan goes off to school in Manhattan, Mingus begins to sink into drug abuse).
The main story is told in two sections. The first is a hazy third-person recollection of Dylan’s childhood, up until he finishes high school, the second a much sharper first-person narration from Dylan, later in life, as a jaded and semi-successful music writer. A number of reviews I’ve seen have criticized the abrupt change of voice (see, for example, the discussion in Slate‘s “Book Club”), but I actually thought this was well done, and probably essential to the story. The only mis-step in this regard is one section, late in the book, told from Mingus’s point of view– I didn’t really care for that.
As a mainstream exploration of racial issues in America, it’s a pretty good book. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the urban sections (being a country boy myself), but it feels real, and Lethem does a wonderful job with the bits I can recognize (his evocation of the mindset of a terrorized middle-schooler is great, and some of the college bits are dead-on as well).
The big problem with the book is that it doesn’t stop there. There’s also a weird magic-realist sort of plot, involving a magical ring Dylan obtains from a bum. The ring grants the wearer the power of flight, and Dylan sets out (eventually enlisting Mingus’s help) to become a costumed superhero. There are wonderful bits here (the way they end up finding crimes to fight is terrific), and somebody could make a really fun novel (or, perhaps more appropriately, a comic book) out of the concept, but this plot doesn’t really fit well with the other. It’s not really integrated with the coming-of-age story at the heart of the book, and the attempts to integrate it all feel badly out of place.
This was a decidedly odd reading experience, which has helped delay this book log entry by a few weeks, as I struggled to find something coherent to say about it (the Wonder Dog hasn’t really helped, either– it’s hard to type when a really cute dog keeps nudging your arm to ask for attention). There are some wonderful pieces here (Dylan’s father’s career as a Hugo-winning artist is wonderfully entertaining if you lived through the Usenet debate over Lethem’s opinions on SF cover art), but the attempt to make them fit together isn’t entirely successful, and ultimately lessens the impact. It’s still a very, very good book, and worth reading, but in the end, it’s fundamentally flawed.