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The Fortress of Solitude, the 2003 novel by Jonathan Lethem that is the Vox Book Club’s pick for May, seems in memory to take place in a single golden childhood summer. It’s a shimmering evocation of a Brooklyn kid’s holiday that feels almost painfully beautiful: the days are eternal, the spaldeens bouncing off the brownstone walls pink and perfect, the water from the fire hydrants shockingly cold — and at certain moments, as you leap in the air to catch a wallball, it almost seems like you can fly.
“But the stories you told yourself — which you pretended to recall as if they’d happened every afternoon of an infinite summer — were really a pocketful of days distorted into legend,” thinks Mingus Rude toward the end of Fortress’s tragically adult second half. “How often had that hydrant even been opened? Did you jet water through a car window, what, twice at best? Summer burned just a few afternoons long, in the end.”
Like that other great American novel of childhood, Little Women, The Fortress of Solitude is built on a binary: the first half devoted to the lovely, vicious pleasures and pains of a childhood recalled with aching emotional intensity, and the second to mourning that childhood’s death and reckoning with its uneasy ghosts. “My childhood was the only part of my life that wasn’t, uh, overwhelmed by my childhood,” explains 35-year-old Dylan Ebdus to a disenchanted girlfriend who wants to know why he won’t let go of a shrine to his Brooklyn days.
Dylan spends his childhood in seedy Gowanus in the 1970s, just as that neighborhood is on the brink of transforming itself into boho Boerum Hill. Dylan’s parents are among the first wave of white gentrifiers, a pair of progressive hippies who shoo nerdy white Dylan off into the majority-Black neighborhood to forge a post-racial utopia, bragging to their friends that he’s one of three white kids in his whole school.
Dylan, however, doesn’t find utopia in Gowanus. As we learn throughout the section titled “Underberg,” Dylan is soft, and he’s clearly got the racial and class privilege needed to leverage his way out of Brooklyn, given enough time. These facts together mark him as a target for what is locally known as “yoking,” a quasi-mugging performed under the cover of camaraderie that sees Dylan relieved of his pocket money daily.
Dylan’s refuge comes in the form of Mingus Rude, the charismatic mixed-race son of an almost-famous soul singer, and the block’s natural leader. Mingus takes Dylan under his wing, including him in ball games, teaching him to shoplift and tag. Dylan instantly worships Mingus, and their friendship takes on a romantic intensity that transforms Brooklyn’s rough streets into a parent-free paradise.
In an early and innocent echo of the cultural appropriation he will cynically continue as an adult, Dylan begins writing Mingus’s tag for him all over the streets. But the team of Dylan and Mingus isn’t built to survive the pressures of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Interlopers intervene, skewed mirror images of both Dylan and Mingus: a nerdy white kid who Dylan despises almost as much as he despises himself; a Black kid who Dylan fears the way he will not let himself fear Mingus. Dylan tests into a heavily segregated magnet school and drifts toward Manhattan and the punk scene, where he is frequently deputized to buy drugs. Mingus stays in Gowanus and starts selling drugs.
What keeps Dylan and Mingus linked, for a while, is their shared secret: a magic ring that lets them fly. They use it to try to fight crime.
By now it’s a familiar move to include a comic book trope like a magic ring in a literary novel, but when Lethem pulled off this trick in 2003, it was still a daring formal innovation. It functions here as a radiant hope for redemption: After all, if anything can defeat America’s structural racism and allow these two boys to simply love each other, it would have to be something magical.
Instead, the ring’s magic fails to accomplish the impossible. Dylan and Mingus drift apart.
In the novel’s second half, Dylan is an embittered 35-year-old music critic living in Berkeley, cherishing the street cred he gets from his Brooklyn childhood and his Black girlfriend, and fantasizing about cheating on said girlfriend with a blonde cocktail waitress. Mingus is a drug addict who’s been cycling in and out of jail since the age of 18.
The critical consensus is that the second half of Fortress, which Dylan narrates in the first person after holding us at a third-person remove all through the first half, is the weaker part of this novel. Titled “Prisonaires,” it lacks the forward drive and the shimmering beauty of the first half, and instead meanders aimlessly through one satirical set piece after another, before Dylan at last makes his way back to Brooklyn and Mingus, and Fortress finds its purpose once again.
But it’s that very quiet chaos in “Prisonaires” that makes “Underberg” shine all the more brightly in retrospect, and that makes you feel all the more strongly what Dylan has lost. Fortress of Solitude is a novel of heartbreak, and Dylan without Mingus is a heartbroken man. That’s why Fortress only begins to soar again when at last it enters fully into Mingus’s voice, and we are given the full tragedy of his ruin.
Share your thoughts on The Fortress of Solitude in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Jonathan Lethem. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- The critic James Wood famously gave Fortress a mixed review in the New Republic upon its release. Eight years later, Lethem responded with an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, taking issue with the fact that Wood never even mentioned the magic ring at the center of the book. A classic literary fight!
- The Fortress of Solitude was adapted in the 2010s into a deeply flawed and deeply beautiful musical, with music by the late great Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). It had the misfortune to premiere at the Public Theatre in 2015, the same season as Hamilton, so there was very little oxygen left in the room for anyone else, but it did at least do well enough to earn a cast album. You can listen to the whole thing here.
- The Camden College section of Fortress is based on Lethem’s time at Bennington College, which he attended along with Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and Donna Tartt (Vox Book Club pick Secret History). Lethem is one of the many figures interviewed in this very good oral history of the era, as well as this almost-as-good podcast on the same topic.
- Lethem is also blogging on Medium! A nice place to check out some of his cultural criticism.
- In his LARB essay, Lethem writes that the ring is a “formal discontinuity,” so that the book “wrenches its own ‘realism’ — mimeticism is the word I prefer — into crisis by insisting on uncanny events.” We could perhaps read a similar crisis of mimeticism in Abraham Ebdus’s rejection of figurative art, which he later embraces with his psychedelic paperback covers. What does this crisis accomplish?
- Why do you think Marvel nerd Dylan uses the DC image of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude as the central metaphor of this novel?
- The other defining absence in Dylan’s life, outside of Mingus, is the absence of his mother, Rachel, who flees Brooklyn early on and seems never to look back. In the final pages of Fortress, Dylan finally goes after her. How does that plotline work for you?
- In the closing pages of Fortress, Dylan muses on the idea of a “middle space” where the utopia his parents sought in Gowanus might actually exist, where DJs jammed in the schoolyards and “Mingus Rude always grooved fat spaldeen pitches, born home runs.” He seems to suggest that such middle spaces are always fleeting in real life and that they can only exist eternally in art. Agree? Disagree?