I have a deep love of the novels of Michael Chabon, especially The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is one of my favorite novels of all time. So when I heard someone (I think it was a podcast) say that they personally think Jonathan Lethem is an even better writer, I figured I would give one of his books a shot. I then realized that I already had read on of Lethem’s books, the incredibly strange Gun, With Occasional Music. I’m not exactly sure where I heard about that book, I think maybe it was on sale some time on the Amazon store, but I read it a couple years ago, and while it was very odd, I liked it quite a bit. It was a bit like Roger Rabbit, a noir with all of the hardboiled trappings, but with talking anthropormorphized animals walking around town along with the humans. So when I decided to actually read a Jonathan Lethem novel on purpose, I chose what was supposed to be one of the more realistic of his works, and one that seemed most like Kavalier and Clay, so I gave a shot for the Fortress of Solitude, and man was it a strange read.
All I really knew about the book was that it was about two boys growing up in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. And at it’s core, that’s really what it was about. Our main character is Dylan Ebdus (named after Bob Dylan) the only white kid living on a block in Brooklyn in the early 70’s. He’s a bit of a loser and an outcast, who can’t make friends with any of the other kids on Dean Street, his home. His mother Rachel is a Bohemian artist-type, who pretty quickly abandons the family and runs off to be free, leaving Dylan with his aloof father Abraham, a painter who is obsessed with handpainting an abstract animated film directly onto reels of film. Dylan leads a pretty lonely life as the ostracized minority among the neighborhood, trying to make friends and survive with his odd father, getting picked on by neighborhood bully Robert Woolfolk. But then Dylan finally meets a peer when a new kid comes to town, Mingus Rude (named after Charles Mingus) the son of a soul singer, Barret Rude, Jr, who is also motherless, and the two boys quickly become friends, despite their racial differences. We then follow the two boy’s friendship, being an interracial duo who spend their time reading comic books and listening to funk records. They go to school, get into graffiti culture, even creating their own tag that they both identify with, the befriend one of the only other white kids in their school, the nerdy Arthur, and start experimenting with drugs. But things between Mingus and Dylan begin deteriorating, especially when Mingus begins slacking in school, and getting friends that aren’t Dylan, even the loathed Robert Woolfolk. At that point the book was a really fascinating coming of age story that incorporated racial themes, and a view of the 70’s that seemed very autobiographical.
And then they find a magic ring that lets them fly. Yep. And shockingly, the only thing more strange than them suddenly finding a magical ring, was how little it influenced the story. The two created their own superhero, Aeroman, and began flying around saving people. But Dylan let Mingus take over the role, since he idolized Mingus and let him do anything. But things really start to fall apart in their relationship when Mingus starts to go out as Aeroman on his own, excluding Dylan, even getting caught by the cops at one point. So Dylan starts spending less and less time with Mingus, around the same time he starts going to a private school for gifted kids, and starts hanging out with white kids, even eschewing the soul and funk he had grown up with for joining the burgeoning punk scene. And by the time the end of high school comes around, Dyland and Mingus have practically become strangers. And as he’s getting ready to move out of Brooklyn and start going to Camden University, he decides to completely cut ties with Mingus and Arthur, and he’s going to do that by offering to buy the magical ring from Mingus so that Mingus and Arthur can use the money to become drug dealers with Robert Woolfolk, sealing their fate as Brooklyn trash, so he can leave the neighborhood and become a sophisticated person and never look back. Unfortunately while he’s hanging out with Mingus and his drugged out father, an altercation happens with Mingus’ grandfather, Barrett Rude Sr, which ends with Mingus shooting his grandfather in defense of his father, and ends up being sent to prison, since he just turned eighteen.
The rest of the book jumps around in time a bit, with an adult Dylan in the 90’s heading back to Brooklyn from his home in Berkeley, California for a sci-fi convention honoring Abraham’s work making sci-fi book covers when he wasn’t busy with his film. Dylan’s life has worked out great for him, but better than if he had stayed in Brooklyn. He didn’t last long in Camden, getting kicked out for dealing cocaine with Arthur after only a semester, and he then headed out to Berkeley. He gets into music, getting a job as a DJ for the college radio station, and eventually quits college all-together, and becomes kind of a music journalist, part-time screenwriter, and mostly writing the liner notes for CD box sets of funk and soul album re-issues. He also learns that the magical ring has lost the ability to fly, and now makes him invisible when he wears. it. But in the 90’s he visits with Abraham, and decides to visit Mingus in prison. He hasn’t seen Mingus since the shooting of his grandfather, and poor Mingus has been in and our of prison since, becoming a career criminal and getting addicted to crack. So Dylan visits Mingus, deciding he’s going to redeem his abandonment of his only friend by using the ring’s invisibility to break him out. But it turns out Mingus doesn’t want to be broken out, and actually wants Dylan to use the ring to save Robert Woolfolk, who is also in prison and is going to be targeted by a gang he’s pissed off. So Dylan sneaks into the prison, and gives Robert the ring, and sneaks back out of the prison. Unfortunately, either by accident, or subconsciously for the years of torment Robert had given him, he doesn’t mention that the ring doesn’t give flight any more, and Robert ends up killing himself jumping off a guard tower, assuming he’s going to fly to freedom. The story then ends, after Dylan leaves Mingus, probably for the last time, and drives back to California, stopping briefly to try and find his mother, which doesn’t end up happening.
This was a very strange novel, but I really did enjoy it. The coming of age part of the story is truly wonderful, and an interesting look at the life of a dorky white kid trying to find himself in a world where no one is like him. And then the odd friendship that grows and collapses when he finally finds a person that he feels a kinship for. Dylan Ebdus is a pretty tragic character, never really finding anyone that he can connect with, and even when he does, he’s more of a doormat than anything else. He drifts through life, unable to actually get when he wants out of it. And by the end of the novel, I don’t really feel that optimistic for him. I don’t think Dylan got a new lease on life, and will change for the better, I feel like he’s doomed to becomes a strange, lonely man, withering away like his father on his own obsessions. And Mingus is no better, a victim of the culture, forced into becoming a stereotype, and wasting his life away in prison because he never had a real role model other than his beloved drugged-out father, who ends up abandoning him in prison, even though he was only in there for defending him. It was kind of a bummer, but a really interesting book that I felt was well worth it, and I’ll certainly be reading more Lethem soon.
The Fortress of Solitude was written by Jonathan Lethem, 2003
Categories: Page Turners