by Eric Lorberer
Holding up Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March as the Great American Novel, Martin Amis praises the book's "fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity. In these pages the highest and the lowest mingle and hobnob in the vast democracy of Bellow's prose. Everything is in here, the crushed and the exalted and all the notches in between."
If those are the qualifications for the category—and if you add the obvious hook that the Great American Novel must assess our peculiar national character, then I think they are—then the same could be said for Jonathan Lethem's glorious new book, The Fortress of Solitude. In setting, it takes us through Brooklyn, Berkeley, Indiana, Vermont, North Carolina, among other places that comprise the country. More importantly, it soars above our streets and stoops, our colleges and communes, our airwaves, our prisons, our lives.
The plot is simple: Dylan and Mingus, the two main characters, grow up. Despite their iconic names they are no mere symbols. Dylan is a white boy in a mostly black Brooklyn neighborhood, and it seems like one of those unpredictable twists of fate that the more extroverted Mingus, son of a semi-famous soul singer, befriends him. Life is full of lessons for young Dylan as he negotiates the social complexities of childhood in an urban environment—
Let me see it: you saw a basketball or a pack of baseball cards or a plastic water gun by taking it into your hands, and what happened after that was in doubt. Ownership depended on mostly not letting anyone see anything. If you let a kid see a bottle of Yoo-Hoo for a minute he'd drink what was left in it.
—and these lessons add up to the person he becomes. Likewise for Mingus, whose power to protect is as intermittent and enigmatic as his graffiti tag "Dose"; and for Arthur Lomb, with whom Dylan is "doomed to friendship"; and for Robert Woolfolk, the recurring antagonist in Dylan's personal drama; and the list goes on. Lethem has rendered all his characters, and their seemingly fated trajectories, with the messy, incontrovertible reality of life.
The book's structure is likewise exquisite: The Fortress of Solitude is an elaborate off-kilter diptych held together by a finely-wrought hinge. The first (and longest) section of the book, "Underberg," chronicles the boys' youth in their corner of Brooklyn—itself in the beginning throes of a transition from "Gowanus" to the tonier "Boerum Hill"—during the '70s. Here, the world (and all its nuances—Lethem excels at drawing out the texture of the decade, saturating his prose in a warm bath of pop-culture particulars) is viewed from a mythical, authoritative remove. This omniscient point-of-view is delightfully in keeping with the magical realist touch of having Dylan and Mingus discover that the power of flight—that core comic book fantasy—is real: "The elongated rectangular grid of these streets, these rows of narrow houses, seen from above, at dusk in late October: imagine the perspective of a flying man. What sense would he make of the figures below . . . Is this a mugging? Should he swoop down, intervene?"
After the text-warping fulcrum of the 10-page "Liner Note," the second part of the novel, "Prisonaires," catapults us into the '90s and shifts to the first person—letting Dylan tell the tale that was always, at heart, his own. It also gives Lethem free reign to dig into the meat of his American epic. For this is largely a novel about race, and although Dylan and Mingus had plenty of opportunities both to confirm and cross the barriers between black and white, the older Dylan can give more reasoned expression to the issue:
The word throbbed between us, permitting no reply from me. I could visualize it in cartoonish or graffiti-style font, glowing with garish decorations, lightning, stars, halos. . . . Though it had been more than once around the block of our relationship, nigger was that rarity, an anti-entropic agent, self-renewing. The deep ugliness in the word always sat up alert again when it was needed.
The section also smartly invokes the increasingly gargantuan pink elephant of American incarceration, from Dylan's proposed screenplay about "the Prisonaires" (an incarcerated singing group) to his gripping account of visiting his old friend in the stir: "We were being transformed into inmates, I began to understand, as our reward for asking to go inside."
Lethem's America is one that contains multitudes: it is only a long day's ride in a rental car that takes Dylan from the bowels of a correctional facility to a utopian, Richard Brautigan-flavored farm; only a commuter flight that takes him from a harrowing argument with his girlfriend to a hilarious Hollywood pitch meeting. And there is so much more—experimental film, motherless sons, drugs and guns, a science-fiction convention, power, sacrifice, the relentless turning of the karmic wheel. Yet perhaps ultimately The Fortress of Solitude is a novel about the complicated nature of friendship:
Dylan Ebdus's friendship with Mingus Rude lived in brief windows of time, punctuation to the unspoken sentences of their days. . . . There was nothing to do but pick up where they'd left off, pool what they still had in common. What was new in the other you pretended to take for granted, a bargain instinctively struck to ensure your own coping on the other end.
XTC sang: "Deep in your fortress of solitude, don't mean to be rude, but I don't feel super." Jonathan Lethem has exploded the sentiment into a gorgeous novel of epic sweep, replete with loss and vision—a truly great Great American Novel.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003