I’ve been doing a fair number of reviews lately, so it actually comes as something of a shock to read something entirely for myself. So much so that it’s getting to the stage when I have a gap in the reading schedule I have great difficulty picking what I want to read next. Sometimes it’s almost a matter of choosing something at random. So it was when I pulled The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (Faber, 2003) off the shelf. I’d been walking up and down the bookshelves completely failing to feel moved by anything waiting there, and I think it was probably on the third pass that I finally lighted on the Lethem. I enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn immensely (what is it with Lethem and solitariness?), but I remember the reviews of this book were rather sniffy, and I have to admit that the cover, a riot of grafitti, is not immediately attractive. Still, this was the book my fingers caught on as I ran them along the shelves.
In the end, I think the reviews were right, but that doesn’t make this a bad book. The first two thirds are absolutely brilliant – even better than Motherless Brooklyn – and if the book looses its way a bit in the final third, it still remains a powerful and impressive work.
The first two-thirds tells the story of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, two motherless boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and it is about as perfect as you could hope. Dylan is white, one of the few white kids in this part of Brooklyn, which makes him a natural target for bullying and yoking (having a headlock put on him while his assailant relieves him, almost apologetically, of his cash) by the local black kids. After his mother leaves, he more or less has to take care of growing up all by himself. His father, Abraham, is an experimental artist locked in self absorption, who suddenly and unexpectedly begins to make a living and a bit of a reputation drawing cover illustrations for science fiction novels; but Abraham takes no part in Dylan’s upbringing. Mingus is black and streetwise. His mother is long gone before he even arrives on Dean Street; his grandfather is a Baptist minister currently in jail for sexually abusing children; his father, Barrett Rude Jr., is a one-time soul singer with a couple of hits to his name who now spends his time doing drugs and who has as little as possible to do with Mingus’s upbringing. The two boys are drawn into each others orbit, where Mingus, contemptuous of authority, becomes a noted grafitti artist (his tag is ‘Dose’, which litters the cover of the book) and incidentally Dylan’s protector.
What we get, as these two vivid characters come together, drift apart, and come together again, is an extraordinary portrait of a particular time and place. This is an urban 70s childhood in all its joys and terrors: the comic books they read, the music, the street games, the TV shows, the shops they robbed, the drugs they took. One extraordinary low-key theme which runs throughout the book without ever rising into significance, also shifts the whole book from straightforward realism into a form of magic realism. From a dying derelict, Dylan receives a ring, a ring which appears to give first him then Mingus the gift of flying. In a counterpoint to the ordinariness to trying to grow up in savage circumstances, a counterpoint that is by turns comic, tragic and strangely moving, they try to become the superheroes of the comic books they love.
But despite the depth of their friendship, this is a childhood relationship which cannot fully survive the test of time. Mingus spends his days cutting school, he sees his destiny on the streets, he has contempt for the man; Dylan, almost despite himself, is clever, he manages to get to a good school, and later to a prestigious college before he screws it up and gets kicked out. The story to this point is told in the third person, the viewpoint shifting restlessly between Dylan, Mingus, Abraham, Barrett and a handful of other characters, it is an extraordinary account of the collective experience of life on the street. But then childhood ends and the book shifts gear.
After a brief entr’acte: the liner notes an adult Dylan wrote for a retrospective collection of Barrett’s music, the final third of the novel is set 20 years later and told in the first person by Dylan. This shift of voice is unfortunate, because it takes us away from the extraordinary multivalent experience that is the first part of the book. But along with this narrowing of voice comes a strange loss of focus. Dylan is now a washed up music journalist in Berkeley, failing in his relationships, making a mess of an attempt to pitch a movie idea to Hollywood, joining his father as Abraham undergoes the embarrassment of being a guest of honour at an sf convention. But alongside this, the story flashes back to cover in a disjointed way the intervening 20 years, and most of the way it feels almost perfunctory. It’s as if Lethem knows he has to cover this ground, but isn’t really interested in it, or can’t find a coherent way through. And then, when you start to feel despair for what had been shaping up to be such a brilliant novel, it suddenly finds its way again. And it does so because Mingus appears on the scene again, and the narrative abruptly slips out of Dylan’s voice. Mingus has been in and out of prison for the last 20 years, and is currently back inside when Dylan, in an attempt to recover whatever has been lost from his life, decides to go back East to see him. He still has that childhood ring, but now it confers not the ability to fly but invisibility (when he was a kid flying away seemed like the ultimate escape to Dylan, as an adult he wants to disappear into the background). Using the ring he slips into the prison where Mingus is held, and now we get the story of Mingus’s life to this point. For a white Jewish law-abiding middle class writer, it is an extraordinary feat of ventriloquism to capture the experience of being a black, addicted habituee of the jailhouse, and in this passage the novel comes close to achieving the electrifying verve of its first third. Suddenly we understand why this final section has been tacked on to the earlier part of the novel. It still doesn’t make it as good as it should have been, but it is an extraordinary novel nonetheless.
First published at Livejournal, 20 November 2005.