The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
A review by James Wood
Jonathan Lethem's new novel is a bohemian rhapsody about an unwilling bohemian a
delicate little white pioneer named Dylan Ebdus, whose right-thinking parents
decide, in the early 1970s, that a ragged street in swinish Brooklyn is the place
before which to cast their only jewel. Dylan's mother Rachel, a pot-smoking hysteric,
proudly tells her friends that her son is one of three white children in his local
school: "Not his class, not his grade the whole school." His father Abraham,
once a promising painter, spends his days at the top of their faded brownstone,
at work on an animated film: an entire morning of exquisite brushwork might represent
a few frames, a few seconds of finished achievement.
The Fortress of Solitude begins where it best belongs, in the summer and on the street. The first part of this book, almost three hundred pages, represents a remarkable, often ravishing conjuration of the perpetual summer of childhood, quite different in tone and depth from any of Lethem's earlier, lighter work. (His last book, the smoothly entertaining Motherless Brooklyn, might better have been called Depthless Brooklyn.) Henry Roth's great work, Call It Sleep, was surely in Lethem's mind in these early pages; and Lethem often equals Roth in vividness, ambition, and beauty. Lethem does not share Roth's modernist commitment to stream-of-consciousness, but he is as interested as Roth in sinking down into the well of childhood and bringing up only what hidden waters can be found there. The child's consciousness dominates everything, even to the risky extent, in Lethem's book, of essentially killing off Dylan's father and mother as fictional characters.
Dylan's Brooklyn is Gowanus, "the band of streets laced between Park Slope and Cobble Hill," and his street is Dean Street. Nearby are the projects, Gowanus House and Wyckoff Gardens. The little boy's summer is spent outside, in a haze of games at which he is no good; childhood is always also a riot of possessive naming "wallball, stickball, stoopball, touch." We are introduced to a game called "skully" and to the "spaldeen." The analogue of Dylan's endless summer is his father's slow work on his cartoon. His father assures him that when the film is finished, time will speed up, and Dylan extrapolates that, likewise, "summer would end, he'd be in school, he was growing up so fast, that was the consensus he alone couldn't consent to." (Lethem's run-on sentences, sometimes irritating, usually effective, are a kind of shy cousin to Henry Roth's streaming convoys; his frequent italics, without which no contemporary American writer can apparently function, are a kind of loud older brother.)
Into this urban garden comes the serpent of race, though not exactly as Dylan's progressive parents had determined that it should. Two black boys will be very important to Dylan for the rest of his life: one is Robert Woolfolk, a gangly, condescendingly strong youth who one day joins the kids' games on Dean Street. "He was from somewhere down Nevins Street, maybe the projects, maybe not." Lethem's fidelity to the child's eye is finely maintained; he skillfully captures the allure, the menace, and the shame involved in discovering, for the first time, that another boy is stronger than oneself. Even as an adult, Dylan will never successfully repress that amalgam of emotions whenever he confronts Robert Woolfolk. Subtly, Robert Woolfolk is almost always referred to in the novel by his alienatingly full name a good example of the ways in which boys may fail ever to grow into men. As far as the world of this novel is concerned, Robert Woolfolk will always be "Robert Woolfolk," the stranger who turned up one day on Dean Street; he is named but never possessed, never gains the familiarity of first-namedness.
Inevitably, Robert Woolfolk fights with one of the boys. Lethem's writing is at once vivid and unobtrusive, and captures the amoral curiosity of little boys:
[Robert Woolfolk] kneed and punched maniacally, his eyes and mouth and whole face squeezed shut as if he was underwater, boxing a shark. Henry wriggled into a ball. For a moment the combatants were both viewed distantly, through a haze of watery interference. Then the silence broke with a rush, the fight bobbed up from its oceanic depths and the kids pushed in close to watch. How else would they have heard the strange whining sounds, the almost animal keening which came out of both of the bodies in Henry's yard? You were learning something. That kids fought was understood but your chances to see it were still rare. That sound might come out of your own body one of these days. It was worth a look, worth holding back a moment from breaking it up no matter what your sympathies, which anyway weren't so clear. Then you broke it up, shouting "Breakitup! Breakitup!," words that emerged by fluent instinct though you'd never spoken them before.
Once Robert Woolfolk has emerged on the scene, geography changes: "Nevins Street was a river of unhappiness running through the land of Dean Street."
Lethem uses "you" a great deal as in "That sound might come out of your own body one of these days." "You" appears as often as "him," and it is Lethem's way of collectivizing Dylan's experiences, of turning solo into anthem. It is a persuasive device, because Dylan seems to spend all of his time with others and so little on his own. (This creates problems for the book, problems of interiority and characterization.) Lethem's use of "you" takes the ignorance and the innocence of childhood "truths" and makes them group-knowing, just as children ignorantly are; and their annunciation in turn only reveals how fundamentally unknowing the group really is. Every so often, Lethem throws out one of these supposed truths or facts. It seems a fact at school that "Chinese kids wouldn't go to the bathroom all day, they lived that much in their own world" a rather brilliant evocation of simultaneous ignorance and presumption. Or: "People in cars weren't New Yorkers anyway, they'd suffered some basic misunderstanding." Or: "Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong." And there is, for a white boy, such a thing as knowingness about black talk: "Y'all was a couple of yos walking together." Dylan fears the repeated mantra "Let me see it for a moment," invariably the prelude to the swift theft of a bicycle or a new ball. "Ownership depended on mostly not letting anyone see anything." The child's affectation of experience grows out of the daily tilling of self-interest: when Dylan gets a little older, he will realize that "the key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn't."
This ability to seize at once the knowingness and the inexperience of children lets Lethem roam with freedom over large communal areas of childhood, and in particular over the kind of kids' daily street theater that most acutely combines those two qualities. One of Dylan's great dreads is of being, as he puts it, "yoked": the moment when a black kid stops a younger white one, puts his neck in a gentle but implacable headlock, and frisks his pockets for loose change. Robert Woolfolk has only to threaten Dylan for him to take note: "The sun of the day made a desert of light all around them." Lethem nicely describes the ambience of aggression and weirdly formal protocol. First the injunction, spoken by one black kid to another: "Yoke the white boy. Do it, nigger." Then the yoking itself: "He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone's hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by who once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white." And then the peculiar exchange of diplomacy:
He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theater. "Nobody hurt you, man. It ain't for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?" They'd spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy's too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn't quite get it, hadn't learned his role. On those occasions they'd pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock's shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny compact.
Like a good many American novelists of his generation and gender, Lethem has a fondness for over-articulate explanation; call it Franzenism. Such writers seem never to have met an implication that they could leave be; the implicit is always to be prized from its shell and consumed publicly, with much italicizing and exhibitionism. In this sense, one might charge Lethem with having written a lively collection of dramatized essaylets and riffs on various codes of Brooklyn street life in the 1970s. The yoking passage is demonstrably such a riff, insisting on telling us what we might divine anyway that this is "light street theater" and wrapping everything up in a neat final sentence about yoker and yokee. There is an air, especially in that last sentence, of being cleverer than young Dylan could possibly be. Lethem wants, we feel, to get this yoking business down almost pedantically, to be analytically right about it.
Curiously, however, though this will become a besetting vice in the third and final part of the novel, and will threaten to unravel all of Lethem's finely gathered threads, it does not threaten the first part of the book. If there is an air of being cleverer than little Dylan, there is never an air of being cleverer than Dylan at Dylan's expense. If the prose turns analytical, then the subject of the analysis remains fresh and uncharted to most of us. Above all, we share the feeling, often infectious, that Lethem himself wants to work this mass of codes out, that he is exploring it anew. There is a genuine atmosphere of cognitive novelty; Lethem manages to combine childish innocence and adult knowingness (not just childish knowingness) in ways that ought to fail but invariably delight and intrigue.
And Lethem delights and intrigues in the end because, while a perfectly adept theorizer, he is a much better painter. His street scenes, his pictures from childhood, have a true coloration; they are drawn, not just spoken. Thus Lethem manages to bring alive what was theoretically over-determined in DeLillo's Underworld, I mean graffiti. In DeLillo's novel, graffiti was an efflorescence of the underground, an art of subversion. In The Fortress of Solitude, graffiti is simply the most thrilling act that a boy, particularly a white boy led on by a black boy, can get up to. Dylan gets involved in graffiti through the other African American in his life, a neighbor called Mingus Rude. Mingus is a new arrival on Dean Street. His father, Barrett Rude Jr., was a singer with a band called The Distinctions. Dylan's mother tells her son that he had a voice like Sam Cooke. Mingus is a year older than Dylan, glamorously senior. He introduces Dylan first to comics, to the world of "Daredevil #77, Black Panther #4, Doctor Strange #12, The Incredible Hulk #115." It is pornography for prepubescents. These magazines have been "chewed by eyes," as Lethem pungently writes.
From comics, Mingus leads Dylan to the cartoonish art of graffiti, to the world of the "tag" (the artist's logo) and the "top-to-bottom burner" (a train or subway car covered from top to bottom in spray-painted letters and images). In a marvelous passage, Mingus takes Dylan to the Brooklyn Bridge, to show him the imperially high spot on one of the towers where two kids have already signed their tags:
Mingus showed the way. They circled under the onramp to find stone stairs up into the sunlight of the bridge's walkway, then started across, over the river, traffic howling in cages at their feet, the gray clotted sky clinging to the bridge's veins, Manhattan's dinosaur spine rotating into view as they mounted the great curve above the river. The walkway's slats were uneven, some rotten. Just an armature of bolted wire lay between Mingus and Dylan's sneakertips and the pulsing, glittering water. The bridge was an argument or plea with space ... the two of them stood in awe, apes at a monolith, glimpsing if not understanding their future.
In such moments, Lethem persuades us to join his own childish awe, and makes glistening even for those who never spilled a drop of graffiti the excitement of the vandalizing urge. Lethem's prose is distractingly uneven. It can be superb. There is an onrush, a bolting lyricism, that certainly recalls Henry Roth, at times even Bellow, though Lethem rarely achieves the precision of Bellow. There are many flarings of metaphor: a beautiful picture of a bus coming down a street at the end of a workday, loaded with black women from the Board of Education, "their weary shapes like black teeth inside the glowing mouth of the bus." There is also a recognizable American carelessness, a kind of casting around or piling up of words and phrases in the hope that at least one will catch fire. A fine description of the Manhattan skyline is started as "the skyline a channel no one watched that played anyway," which is very good, but then wags this loose tail in its rear: "like an anthem, like famous static." The channel that no one watched was quite good enough on its own. DeLillo has a similar unwillingness to finish his sentences, always hanging on to them with begging bowl in hand, as if to say, "Just a little more please, just another phrase please?" Like Colson Whitehead, his fellow Brooklynite, Lethem is fond of rampantly dangling phrases, such as "After flunking the Stuyvesant test Arthur's mother had falsified their residence." Dylan reflects that "shrugging around in your own language, falsely casual, you discovered what you already knew," which is a good description of both the highs and lows of Lethem's own shrugging language.
Mingus becomes Dylan's best friend, and will be bound to him for the rest of his
life, though their paths will sharply diverge. Yet there is a way in which what
happens after childhood, though it is amply documented here, never comes alive
as did the early years. The endless summer of Dean Street, with its mixture of
ignorance and worldliness, shimmers like a mirage, incapable of lending its light
to the rest of the book. Even in the novel's first section, the vitality begins
to wane as soon as Dylan leaves Brooklyn for Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.
Dylan is beginning his great rift from Mingus, which will only widen and deepen
as Dylan goes north to a liberal arts college and Mingus goes to prison. Lethem
is funny about Stuyvesant, and nimbly mocks the pretensions of the now-teenage
Dylan as he and his friends discover punk (it is the late 1970s). There is a funny
scene in which the kids take their brand-new leather jackets into the park and
beat them against rocks to age them: they still "looked new as licorice." And
there is some droll evocation of the predictably terrible school rock band, aptly
named Stately Wayne Manor.
But predictability has precisely overtaken the singular, because Lethem seems to want to conflate Dylan and his times. Is it the late '70s? Then bring on the punk. One is disheartened, but not entirely surprised, to encounter, toward the end of the first part of the book, sentences such as these: "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around. It's the end, the end of the seventies." Or, even more egregious: "It's 1981: nobody's heard the term crack. They won't for two or three years, at least." The notion that Lethem, as one critic recently had it, is famously "allergic to realism" seems comical in the face of such stodgy reportorial realism. Indeed, realism is the great strength of his depictions of a child's Brooklyn.
But Lethem conjures Dylan's Brooklyn world so well in part because he also makes it a fairy tale a parentless playground. He excises the parents. Dylan's mother leaves his father early in the book, and rather incredibly Dylan appears to stop thinking about her almost at once. Dylan's father has no living presence at all. He is a shade at the top of the house, at work on his film. "Abraham was a collection of sounds bound in human form by gloom" is one of the sentences in which Lethem wants to persuade us that Dylan's father barely exists; that may indeed be how Lethem thinks of his character, but it could hardly be how Dylan thinks of his father.
The strengths of the novel begin to sow the seeds of its weaknesses. Dylan's life on the street, and with Mingus, is powerfully evoked, and we hardly notice at first that Dylan has no domestic life to speak of, is rarely described at home. Likewise, Dylan's Brooklyn story is the story of the rough induction of a white boy into the external vivacities of the street. This is very powerfully done, but somewhat at the expense of awarding Dylan any interiority or, indeed, much characterization at all. We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan's life), or encountering music that is not the street's music, or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.
Practically orphaned, and apparently intellectually orphaned too, Dylan gets progressively less interesting to us as he gets older, because as he gets older he becomes less the voyeuristic street kid of Brooklyn and more a mind of Manhattan or ought to become such a mind, except that we are not informed of its existence. So in Manhattan he simply becomes lack, leaking away the quiddity of his old self. One suspects that Lethem felt this lack too as he led Dylan off to Stuyvesant. It might explain the sense one has of the writing falling off a little once it reaches Manhattan, of the writer driving the prose through fairly predictable historical hoops. Many of Lethem's skills do not survive the trip across the Brooklyn Bridge. Of course, one of Lethem's large suggestions in this book is that Dylan remains forever the Brooklyn kid; but in general we are engrossed in the prospect of the child as father to the man precisely in proportion to the development of the man, not just the persistence of the child. Lethem, after all, grew up in the same place as Dylan, and at the same time, but he also grew out of Brooklyn enough to write this intermittently fine novel. Call It Sleep also becomes less interesting as it draws to its close, but Roth avoided Lethem's dangers by keeping his young hero young: the novel is a four-hundred-page cloudburst of juvenile intensity.
These splinters of weakness, barely visible at the corner of the text, become beams when the novel shifts time and place. In the book's long final section, Dylan is thirty-five, a rock journalist living in California. He has become the novel's narrator, and it is something of a shock to hear him speak to us; we last saw him, mutely wrapped in third-person narration, going off to college in Vermont. Alas, the thirtysomething Dylan turns out to be a vague character; he talks like Lethem's prose, which is pleasant when the prose is good, but is hardly very distinguishing. We see Dylan pitch a screenplay about the band the Prisonaires to a Hollywood producer (a funny scene), and quarrel with his black girlfriend, and attend a conference meeting held in honor of his father. In the intervening years Abraham Ebdus has become famous in science-fiction circles for his covers for a series of pulpy books. To Abraham, these were nothing more than afternoon assignments, tossed off left-handedly; but to the world of science fiction he is a demigod of paperback art. Humanly, Dylan's father has barely more weight than he had in Brooklyn; Lethem has the greatest difficulty in notching any life out of this dusky silhouette. But it allows Lethem to write up the sci-fi conference much as Franzen wrote up the Scandinavian cruise ship in The Corrections: it reads like easy journalism. There is a man illiterately described as having "a Vandyke beard and mad-scientist glasses" (presumably Lethem means Van Dyck) and another man, "a fortyish biker-type, fat in leather pants." And a restaurant is described thus: "The restaurant, Bongiorno's, was bad and didn't know it. Everything was presented with a passive-aggressive flourish, as though we probably weren't savvy enough to appreciate the oregano-heavy garlic bread, the individual bowls for olive pits, the starched napkins stuffed into our wine glasses, or the waiter's strained enunciation of a long list of specials."
It as if the delicate balance of the novel's earlier style has been turned inside out. What was an allowable, even cherishable vernacular the knowingness of boys who don't know very much becomes irritating when it is a man's undemanding knowingness (or worse still, Lethem's). And Lethem begins to fiddle with the material of the earlier part of the book, picking away at the implicit until he can untie it for us and expose it. Dylan recalls the Wild Cherry song "Play That Funky Music, White Boy," which the black kids had used to torment the white kids ("Play that fucking music, white boy!"), and now tells us: "Of course, the thirty-five-year-old rock critic knew what the thirteen-year-old scrap of prey on the sidewalk outside Intermediate School 293 never did: Wild Cherry were a bunch of white guys. The tune which had been enlisted as an indictment of my teenage existence was in fact a Midwestern rock band's rueful selfparody." Everything is wrong with this passage; but its wrongness is truly sealed by that first "of course" (well, of course!) and by the authorial italics. They loudly violate the innocence to which they refer. One shakes one's head: this kind of crude post-hoccing, after the knowing but unknowing rhapsodies of the book's early pages? It is a terrible fall.
Dylan, who was never himself interesting (he needed the world he was witnessing in order to be interesting), might be any thirty-five-year-old rock journalist. In one of his maddeningly snooty essays, Adorno complains that popular music represents the ultimate conformity because each of its consumers thinks it speaks uniquely to him, while each is thinking the same as the next person. This is hardly a reason to refrain from listening to it, as Adorno rather astoundingly seems to think, but it suggests the ways in which rock music, far from making those fictional characters who love it singular, can make them merely hollow and plural. They are simply dipping into the common kitty, but with fiercer grabs.
Lethem, one suspects, knows that he has blown leagues off course. Before Dylan has spent too much time in California, Lethem properly whisks him back to Brooklyn, where the book begins to take on again some of its squandered treasure. Mingus, now a crack addict, is in prison in Watertown (Robert Woolfolk is incarcerated there, too), and Dylan, after visiting the wreck that Barrett Rude Jr. has become, journeys north to see his old friend. The elisions of their lapsed friendship are sensitively rendered, and the writing becomes beautiful again. The prison is described as having "the muggy stink of curdled years. After lights-out, a planetarium show of cigarette-ends pulsed on the galleries above and around us, reproachful failing stars. Go, they said." (That adjective "failing," in place of the expected "falling," is especially lovely.) As the book closes, Dylan thinks of "the middle spaces, those summer hours when Josephine Baker lay waste to Paris, when "Bothered Blue" peaked on the charts, when a teenaged Elvis, still dreaming of his own first session, sat in the Sun Studios watching the Prisonaires, when a top-to-bottom burner blazed through a subway station, renovating the world for an instance, when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord run from a streetlamp, when juice just flowed."
This returns us to the velocity and the dash of those first three hundred pages, an engine on which the reader can ride even as Lethem unwisely cuts its power and fiddles with its innards that big blast of Brooklyn childhood. But we should not be returning to it; we should never have left it. Big books with big virtues and big flaws are preferable to little books with little virtues and big flaws, but it is discouraging to see the flaws opening so palpably in the midst of the fine, to see a writer miss the chance to close them, as they widen before our disappointed eyes.
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