Tracing the paths of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude through music, comics, movies and movements, and their shift into graffiti, drugs and art, Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude” is a massive sprawl of pop culture and an exercise in memory. It’s a novel as much about Dylan and Mingus – two kids brought to Brooklyn’s Gowanus without much choice – as the streets they grow up on and the changes slowly wrought on both.
In this world, characters boost comics at the newsstand, pore over them, trace breasts and write their names in them. They ponder the dilemma of Black Bolt and scoff at their adolescent enthusiasm tangling them up in multiple first issues of Omega the Unknown. In this world, music surrounds everything; through the people who make it, the little girls singing Marvin Gaye down the block and the obsessionados who earn by writing about it. In this world, art is found in the smooth wax poured in a bottle cap, the pulp covers real artists paint to make the bills and the abandoned poetry of absent mothers.
Lethem grew up in this same world, one he’s largely left to the margins of his writing career. After a decade in California, Lethem moved back just blocks from where he grew up. Eyeing the story he’d been itching to tell for almost 22 years, Lethem dived into his past, tracing a path of cultural road signs that led through his own youth in 1970’s Brooklyn. “Usually I relied on feeling and memory to suggest what would be on the page and researched to shore it up or provide the context. The most telling or loaded elements were things I remembered. Other times I was wrong and I pretended – I lied – and moved the dates of certain things around just to have my way.”
Lethem, 39, is in his third-floor walkup in Brooklyn, preparing for a cross-country tour to promote his seventh book, already critically lauded and anticipated as the next big book: “Kavalier and Clay” big, “Corrections” big. Uneasily shelved under fiction, it’s also autobiography, cultural history and magical realism. “It’s impossible to say how much it is or isn’t autobiographical. Obviously it’s hugely so in feeling, it’s openly a spiritual autobiography. But the trick is that on any other level, it’s an insane collage of fragments of memory, other people’s stories and a ton of stuff that I invented from whole cloth. For me to begin to sort it out would be utterly impossible.”
Up until now, maybe up to now, Lethem’s characters have existed in worlds built with a severe bent, where the predictable tropes of genre and nature of the world shift just a bit. His first two books, “Gun with Occasional Music” and “Amnesia Moon” are pulp science fiction, where detectives hang out with baby-bodied adults and snort government suggested Acceptol and post apocalyptic citizens take a road trip through an America carved up into different states of dreaming. The two novels that followed were a marked difference. “As She Climbed Across the Table” is a campus love triangle between a boy, a girl and the void that threatens to steal her heart with its incomprehensible preferences. “Girl in Landscape” reimagines John Ford’s “The Searchers” as a displaced Brooklyn family homesteading on Mars and provided Lethem his first step to revisiting his own homestead, now 3000 miles east.
“Around the time of ‘Girl,’ I really began thinking through it and thought ‘Fortress’ would be my next book. And then I ended up working on a short book first, something fast, and that was ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’
That “Motherless Brooklyn” took the place of “Fortress of Solitude” makes sense, seeing how Lethem was feeling his way through 1970’s Brooklyn, filtering it through the showpiece of the book, Lionel Essrog. Spitting and riffing his tourette’s, Lionel is an adult orphan, a reluctant detective trying to track down his mentor’s killer while translating himself into worlds he’s never been a part of. “That was my entry into being able to explore Brooklyn as the book and express some of my enormous fund of emotion and feeling for this place.”
Lethem grew up on the same Dean Street in “Fortress,” living with his artist father and his brother, Blake, who would soon join the ranks of the almost-mythic headliners of the NYC graffiti scene, his mother dying when he was 14. But despite the easy label of autobiography, Lethem has always been rabbity, anxious to escape categorization, unapologetic for wearing his loves and his influences on his sleeve.
“I’ve always written out of my own enthusiasms and I know I could only be restless with any attempt to limit the description of what I was going to do as a writer. I knew I had a lot of other kinds of books in me and needed to claim the freedom to write them by saying ‘No, not exactly. Don’t call me that.’ The shrugging off that I’ve had to perfect over the years is part of keeping my breathing room. It’s not like a political affiliation.”
Not that summing up “Fortress of Solitude” in one category word would be an easy act. It’s an act that screams out for a list and a great counting down of the endless things Lethem touches on in the 40 years between the covers. As Dylan copes with being the seldom white face in public school, getting yoked for spare change and answering to whiteboy, he navigates the silences of his bohemian home life. His mother pushes her bohemian standards on Dylan’s schooling and runs off, leaving only a random trail of cryptic postcards in her wake while his father paints frames of film in the attic and copes with the taint of pimping your muse to make the rent. Mingus, by contract, blends in without effort and becomes an unnamed leader of the shrinking circle of kids. While his father, a dormant soul music legend with a 4-track collecting dust under the floorboards, never leaves the house – a world that shrinks down to the chopped up lines on a mirror – Mingus disappears into the streets, into his tag: Dose.
Dose is just one of a populace of aliases and secret identities. Isabel Vendle, architecting her dream for Gowanus, building her Boerum Hill one white face at a time, constructs her narrative in secret. Dylan is whiteboy, Dillinger, D-Lone, fucking whiteboy and what the fuck you lookin’ at? Mingus grows in and out of Dose, abandoning it and then living inside of it as his life begins to spiral down. And flying above the nicknames, the tags and the day jobs is Aaron X. Doily, Brooklyn’s own superhero, too drunk to fly straight and too far gone to care.
As Lethem remarks, “Sometimes I reach for one part of the toolkit and sometimes another part.” So it is, in his nimble hands, that when Dylan gets the magic ring from Aaron and revises himself as a superhero, complete with cape and spirographed symbol, that the book never veers into unintended comedy or eye-rolling dismissal. This childhood fantasy weaves in and out of the narrative, passing from Dylan to Mingus, both of them sharing the Aeroman identity, and Mingus to Dylan, sharing the Dose tag, vanishing along with the schism in the book that breaks childhood firmly away from adulthood, fading like the comics they once obsessed over.
Countless essays from Lethem have documented his fixation film, from a viewing of “Spider-Man,” both emotional and analytical. to the particular emotional resonance that “Star Wars” evokes in him. As the editor of Da Capo’s 2002 edition of best writing on music to him serenading bands like the Go-Betweens, Lethem’s musical hunger knows no satisfaction. But comics are a long past habit, one he’s more comfortable reminiscing about than discussing in a modern framework. “I’m pretty much 20 years out of the loop. I was never a very assiduous collector; I was more the kid who looked over other kids’ shoulders at their collections. I was an art student and I made a lot of comics, so comic books became much more of an act of dialogue for me.”
So ask him the big questions about his book, and he bats them back with ease and grace, but put the hard ones to him, like which he prefers: Marvel or DC, and you get the rare hesitation, Lethem hemming just a moment. “It’s almost like an admission that you’re white after all.”
This admission of whiteness, squareness, vulnerability follows through the snapshots of gentrification, the birth of punk rock and rap, the first whispers of crack and the firestorm it sets off, the curse of family, the bless of friendship and the reversible nature of both and, thrumming through it all, the influence of race, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes silent, but always insufferably there. Documenting the life of a neighborhood and several eras of American life, “Fortress of Solitude” at first glance bites off more than it can chew, but everything is measured, equal parts methodical and freeform. It resonates with autobiography and documentary, swooping crane shots that swing from past to present, locked in on Dylan’s evolution from kid-as-victim to adult-as-shit, hanging a head at Mingus’ slide into his father’s inescapable curse.
Lethem’s masterwork, one of those left-field rare manifestations of the Great American Novel is a small-i important book that never feels like it knows just how valuable it is. Bordered as it is by the real world, the small and large moments Lethem builds equally from his own memories and from scratch resonate even deeper with each double-bagged issue, each brand new LP, each discovery that the art that surrounds us inevitably finds a need to create within us.
“I turned a real corner with this book, in that I suddenly allowed myself to give my characters my own obsession with culture. Everyone in the book has a very intense, charged relationship with some kind of art form, and up until now, my characters haven’t been fans or artists. Of course myself, my family and most of the people I love are like that. This book is much more about people like us.”