Jonathan Lethem loves language and it shows. Writers who use beautiful descriptions and show a deep understanding of words can make any story more interesting. This is certainly true of THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. While the book seemed slow and too deliberate in some places, the author's skill kept me reading. Lethem's MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN might deserve the description tour de force, and GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC showed lots of imagination.
I'm usually not interested in stories of boys growing up, but Lethem made me pay attention to this one. There are reminders here of everything from THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY by Michael Chabon to Steve Kluger's LAST DAYS OF SUMMER --- about growing up in New York in the '50s, '60s and '70s, friendships, and figuring out the codes of childhood.
We meet Dylan Ebdus, who is adored by his mother, at the age of five. Unfortunately the mother, a potentially major character, leaves the scene fairly early in the book. Alexander Ebdus, Dylan's father, is a slightly obsessed artist who for a long time never seems to know he has a son who could use his attention. Alexander ends up as a cover artist for science fiction paperbacks, which makes him more interesting to me --- in part because, while there is no Hugo for "Best New Artist," an award Alexander wins, I'm very familiar with the Hugo Awards and there is even one in my house (though it's not mine).
Dylan seems to slide through much of life. Mingus, the aware hip black kid, befriends him. This takes courage --- Dylan doesn't have anything unique to offer, and in their neighborhood in Brooklyn, black kids have the edge on things that are hip and cool. Time and again, their friendship saves Dylan from uncomfortable situations. He soon develops an odd fascination with becoming a superhero, taken over by Mingus; it's a strong subplot that gives a slightly otherworldly feel to this otherwise straightforward story.
Lethem does a very nice job of mixing the real world with his imaginary one. I often stopped to try to remember a record, an event, or a school before realizing that that one wasn't real. There are markers along the way of musical and political events. I thought Lethem's markers of funk music and graffiti tagging were a little too superficial in the scheme of black and white differences in the last fifty years. This isn't to say that Lethem's story is stereotypical. However, Dylan succeeds while Mingus is doomed; Dylan is encouraged to go to a magnet high school (even as his father seems oblivious to it all), but Mingus slides by and falls into drugs and oblivion, in no small part thanks to his father's drug habits.
When Lethem writes at his best, he takes you completely into his fictional world. The "Liner Notes" section, which brings you up-to-date, is wonderfully written, albeit too long. But you believe you heard all those R&B and soul songs that Barrett Rude Jr. sang with "The Subtle Distinctions" (I love that name).
However, I never quite got a handle on Dylan. I saw much of him through a scrim, never quite connecting. Dylan doesn't seem to develop much definition over the years. He has few passions or strong beliefs. I was compelled to read every beautifully written word, although I don't think I've ever met a character who seemed so lost about his life. The book trails off at the end, confused like its main character. I read all 450 plus pages in two days. I'm just not completely sure why.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter on January 22, 2011
The Fortress of Solitude