After a series of short and playful novels touching on genres as diverse as detective noir and science fiction, Jonathan Lethem makes a bid for the big time with this self-consciously Big American Novel examining the friendship of two boys – one white and the other black – growing up in 1970s Brooklyn.
Although the page count may be greater and the chronology more expansive, most of the action in Fortess of Solitude is still located in geographical turf familiar to Lethem fans. However, while previous Lethem outings revelled in eccentric characters in absurd situations – a private eye with Tourette’s Syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn, a physicist who creates a hole in the universe in As She Climbed Across the Table, a post-apocalyptic road trip in Amnesia Moon – Fortess of Solitude inhabits much more conventional territory.
Dylan Ebdus is the son of white bohemian parents who move the family into a mainly black area of Brooklyn where Dylan first encounters Mingus Rude, the son of a soul singer, whose group The Subtle Distinctions enjoyed brief success several years before. Dylan and Mingus become best friends, but it is a friendship circumscribed by the racial climate in their home patch.
As one of only two white kids in his school, Dylan stands out a mile and is bullied by all and sundry. He idealises Mingus and longs to develop a graffiti tag as famed as the “DOSE” that Mingus sprays liberally around the neighbourhood.
What then unfolds is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale, rich in the kind dreamy nostalgic detail that inhabits these kinds of novels – endless summer evenings, intimate friendships forged and lost, painful familial conflicts.
However, this is far sadder than any coming-of-age tale I’ve ever read, and it gains much of its impact from Lethem’s decision to bring the story bang up to date, so instead of leaving the characters cast forever in the glow of childhood, we see them as horribly screwed up adults.
The painful, but almost inevitable, trajectory of their lives is that Mingus, for all his early promise, becomes a drug dealer, crack addict and eventually lands in jail. Dylan, in contrast, wins a scholarship to a posh school in Manhattan and moves on to an exclusive private college.
Once Dylan and Mingus become separated, and their fortunes diverge in accordance with the unsavoury realities of race inequality, the book loses much of its initial impact. Lacking the unifying force of the early Brooklyn episodes, the narrative becomes mired in a series of unsatisfying vignettes, as Dylan grows up to become a reasonably successful, but emotionally confused, adult.
The desultory plotlines mirror the aimlessness and disorientation felt by the protagonists. This assertion – that sometimes adulthood cannot recreate the magic of childhood – may be an admirably honest admission, but it makes for unsatisfying reading.
This is a brave book and, I also feel, a deeply personal one. Lethem floods his narrative with the kind of finely detailed reminiscences that can only come from one’s own experiences. He conveys the bewilderment and aching loneliness of childhood wonderfully well, but his commitment to extending the book’s scope beyond childhood leads to an unconvincing second half and an outrageously silly ending.
However, there is still much to admire here and, although it may fall someway short of its lofty ambitions, it is still a poignant depiction of friendships won and lost.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.