I have a confession to make: I didn’t finish Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem’s big, partly autobiographical novel about a nerdy kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s.
I interviewed Lethem a few weeks ago on my Copper Robot podcast, where I talked knowledgeably and affectionately about some of the scenes and backgrounds of Fortress. And that wasn’t a lie, because I kept the discussion to the first 150 pages of the novel. I read that in 2003, when the book came out, and then I stopped. But when I was done with the interview, I picked up the book and started it again, and finished it recently. I’m glad I did. It’s an intense, emotional novel, and well worth reading.
One of the reasons I gave up reading Fortress first time through is that the novel is somewhat disorganized. It slows down and wanders in the middle, seeming to lose its way. But the first and last thirds of the book are gripping. I was also pushed out of the novel by its emotional honesty. It’s sometimes so true it’s painful to read.
Jonathan Lethem is author of Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City, and Gun With Occasional Music. He is a past winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.”
Fortress of Solitude is the story of the friendship of two boys growing up in Gowanus, Brooklyn, a neighborhood real estate agents would describe as “transitional.” Gowanus is occupied by working-class and poor blacks and Puerto Ricans, within walking distance of some really bad neighborhoods, including a housing project. But landlady Isobel Vendle is trying to convert Gowanus into a gentrified neighborhood, with a new, genteel name: Boerum Hill.
That’s where Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist, comes in. The first wave of gentrification is always the bohemians, who move into a downscale neighborhood and make it a bit cleaner and safer before they’re pushed aside by the next wave of residents, accountants and lawyers and other professional people. Abraham Ebdus, Dylan’s father, is an artist, married to the beautiful, mercurial Rachel. Dylan’s closest friend is Mingus Rude, son of the moderately famous R&B singer Barrett Rude Jr. Moving to Gowanus with his son is the beginning of Barrett’s decline.
The novel follows Dylan and Mingus and their families and other people around them through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the cusp of the 21st Century.
It’s a novel with a powerful fantasy element, handled in an unusual manner.
One of the great themes of Fortress of Solitude is Dylan’s growing up with a legacy of emotional neglect and physical abuse. Dylan’s mother, Rachel, is loving and protective at first, but she abandons him and her husband when Dylan is a little boy. She leaves New York, and neither Dylan nor Abraham ever see her again, although they do receive occasional poetic postcards from “Running Crab.” Abraham, the artist, retreats up to his garrett studio, where he draws covers of science-fiction paperbacks for money, and for love he works on a modernist animated movie, which he paints slowly, by hand, one frame at a time. Dylan is virtually parentless.
Another theme of the book is bullying. Lethem writes with great truthfulness about the experience of a nerdy kid being bullied in a tough school, being treated as a powerless object of stronger boys’ aggression, ridicule, and greed. I was a nerdy kid myself. I wasn’t bullied a lot by Dylan’s standards, but enough so that I wasn’t really all that comfortable reliving it. That’s one of the main reasons I abandoned the book the first time I tried to read it.
The title of the book comes, obviously, from Superman’s secret Arctic lair. Dylan and Mingus are fans of superhero comic books as boys. And they become superheroes themselves when they come upon a magic ring that gives its wearer the power of flight. In a more conventional genre novel, the adventures of the boys with the ring would be what the story is about.
But for most of Fortress of Solitude, the ring is peripheral to the story, although it’s central to the themes of the book. I think the ring is a symbol of whatever gift might allow a person to rise above a lousy childhood: Talent for writing, or acting, or business, or any of a thousand other things.
The latter part of Fortress deals with Dylan Ebdus in young adulthood, his 20s and 30s. He’s emotionally wrecked by his neglectful parenting and the constant bullying of his growing up. During a fight with his girlfriend, she confronts him and asks why he’s obsessed with his childhood—which he is, he is incapable of moving on, of getting over his lousy upbringing and just be an adult.
He responds: “My childhood is the only part of my life that wasn’t, uh, overwhelmed by my childhood.”
In Fortress, the ring doesn’t bring success to anyone, except maybe for Dylan himself, who uses it to take the first steps that might straighten out out his life. The novel ends before we can find out how that will come out.
This is a novel with a great personal connection to me. I grew up in Brooklyn until I was eight years old, about the same time Lethem and his fictional Dylan Ebdus were children in Brooklyn. I found the details of childhood in that time and place breathtaking to recall. Two details in particular: A game called “skully,” played with bottlecaps on the sidewalk (we called it “skelly”), and putting on leather shoes by jamming your feet into them without untying them, which when done repeatedly broke down the leather upper above the heel.
I hadn’t thought of those things in 35 years, but when Lethem mentioned them they came rushing back to me.
Also, as I said, there was the bullying. I don’t think I was bullied very much, but it was enough. Like Dylan Ebdus, I spent a lot of time in my 20s and 30s dealing with the residual anger and shame of childhood bullying.
Lethem said in our interview that Fortress of Solitude an intensely personal book to many readers, even those who don’t share my connection to the time and setting. Even someone who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Dublin, Ireland, said he felt the book was about that city.
Lethem, who started his career publishing in science fiction magazines, has a section of the book that takes on science fiction fandom: Abraham Ebdus, the protagonist’s father, acquires a following with his paperback book covers, and is feted as guest of honor at a convention. The scenes at the convention are not a kind portrait of fandom, but it’s not a kind book.
Fortress of Solitude has finely drawn, quirky characters, and lovely, rich writing. It’s a very sad book, but also very funny in parts. It’s flawed—the middle wanders and is often uninteresting—but it’s definitely worth reading.
I’m wrapping up my write-up of my Copper Robot interview with Lethem, along with the audio podcast. I’ll post it here soon.