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Jonathon Lethem is an established author and many will know him from his previous novel Motherless Brooklyn(2004), which won Novel of the Year by Esquire and The National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award. I however was new to him and I really picked the book purely from the blurb on the back, it sounded like quite a unusual story, which appealed to my reading tastes.
The narrative of the novel is split into three distinctive parts covering different times in the characters lives and spanning almost thirty years. It begins in early 70s New York, in a predominantly poor black area of Brooklyn, which however was beginning to see some of the Brownstones being taken over by middleclass white families. Dylan Ebdus is the shy son of an arty white couple, she a (slightly jaded) hippy housewife and he a frustrated artist whose main income comes from book covers and illustration. Dylan feels isolated in the neighbourhood until he befriends streetwise Mingus Rude a slightly older black boy who reputation and street credibility is enhanced by his father being a famous but fading soul singer who achieved temporary success in the 60s. By association with Mingus, Dylan is less fearful and begins to adjust to the crowd in the rough neighbourhood.
The relationship between the boys is not simple this is a time of prevalent racist attitudes which were enforced by both sides of the black and white community. Lethem examines these divisions through the culture of the time, a time when the music you listened to and the comics you read said more about you to your peers than any opinion you might voice. The 70s Soul music, Rap and the comic book/ graffiti culture that provides the background to much of the story is really a device to explore some more universal themes. Lethem a long-time Brooklyn resident himself seemed to effectively and convincingly capture the atmosphere of growing up in a potentially hostile environment. He traces the awakening of racial divisions in the children of the poor neighbourhood. When they are very young race means nothing and all are happy to play together on the street but as they get older there is a slow realisation that black kids and white kids are supposed to be different and invariably conflict arises in such a claustrophobic community.
But this is only one aspect of the story as the two boys grown their friendship is tested by events around them but they are brought closer together by the advent of hip hop and the rise of the graffiti culture. They begin to express their identity by tagging buildings (DOSE is their tag) and literally make their mark in the community. Some of the detail relating to the kids adventures when tagging, avoiding being caught and stealing the art material (Spray paints, fluorescent pens) from the big department stores is fascinating to read and seems borne out of direct experience. The boys lives are suddenly thrown into confusion when they meet Aeroman a real life if shabby looking comic-like superhero that swoops down off buildings to fight street crime. Aeromans magic ring enables him to fly from rooftop to rooftop although age and general world-weariness is beginning to catch up with him. This is where Lethem takes a risk, the novel so far is an interesting and well written story of two young boys growing up in the big city when suddenly and without warning the author throws in a slice of magical realism that is quite disconcerting to the reader, but it works! Without giving anything away the story follows the coming of age of the boys their sexual awakening and the massive cultural changes that took place in the late 70s and 80s. Music is especially important and Disco, Punk Rock and the proliferation of drugs from Cannabis, Coke and eventually Crack all play a part.
The second distinct part of the story sees Dylan and Mingus develop in young adulthood to live very different lives. As the two physically drift apart their inner connection is always present through a traumatic event they jointly experience and their knowledge of Aeroman. The final segment sees them approaching middle age and we finally come to the resolution and inevitable dramatic consequences of events that took place early in their lives.
This is a hugely ambitious novel and I wasnt surprised to find it was to a large extent autobiographical. Lethem by his own admission grew up in a hippie-utopian household in the late 60s, his mother died when he was in his teens and he frequented the High School for Music and Art in NYC. He was a painter specialising in a cartoony/comic style principally following in the artistic footsteps of his father. The similarities between this period of Lethem life and that of Dylan seem clear and he obviously drew on his own experiences to construct the character.
Fortress of Solitude primarily attempts to examine the relationship between two boys through their attitude to race, their interest in music, comic strips and street art. The fantastical elements that they come across in the comics, a world of superheros where anything is possible, is in stark contrast with the real lives of Dylan and Mingus but Lethem by introducing the idea of Aeroman and the magic ring brings to life these childhood dreams and allows himself to explore them further in the course of the story. I particularly liked the way he introduced the absurd nature of the boys exploits into the reality of the story to an extent that you cease to think any of it is strange the characters become as realistic as the social commentary.
The story set as it is in the racial mix of 70s New York cant avoid dealing with race as a theme. The boys lives are increasingly affected by the racial divide that exists. Dylan is the only white boy on the block and later he is one of only three white students at school. This makes him a target and he is constantly yoked (mugged for small change) by the other black kids. Despite this he reveres many aspect of the black culture that surrounds him and idolises Mingus as an older brother. His fascination with this culture and his obsession with black music form a fundamental part of his psyche and later in life shape the way he relates emotionally to people.
The writing is often complex and Lethem certainly take great care in constructing his sentences, which can often feel a little laboured and longwinded but you get used to the style and whilst full of very rich imagery it does manage to evoke a time and a place. This is a serious novel despite its surreal elements and there are some dark episodes in the story but there is also plenty of humour. Dylan friendship with the only other white kid on the block is filled with funny scenes and the later episodes at college were tinged with genuine comedy.
Lethem makes a point of expanding his vision of the time by enlarging the canvas of characters he deals with and there are many wonderful characters and Lethem seems to have a gift for bringing them to life. The boys fathers in particular become increasingly important as the story develops. The relationship between Dylan his father and Mingus father is especially touching and several swipes I felt were made at the misplaced white middle class liberalism of the time, which seem to be embodied by Dylans mother and the shallow West Coast pseudo liberal materialism.
If I had to mention any flaws in the novel it would be the ambitious nature of the story. This is a tale packed with ideas. Friendship, trust, violence, guilt, love Lethem doesnt spare us, but also throws in flying caped crusaders, comic book heroes and music. This provides plenty of stimulation for the reader but maybe a slight lack of focus. Also a confusion of styles does make it hard for the whole project to come together successfully in the end. The novel attempts to give us a panoramic vision in both space and time of a generation of America, from New York to Berkley, from schoolyard to prison Lethems story tries to capture many different facets of the society he grew up in.
I enjoyed reading Fortress Of Solitude I found it quite difficult at times especially early on but when I was used to his particular style of writing the story and the strong characters carried me along. Its not a perfect book but then no book is but at least it has wet my appetite and Ill certainly be reading more of Lethems work in the future.
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is available from Amazon.co.uk (Paperback 528 pages,
Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 0571219357) for £3.99 (+p&p)