The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday. 2003. 528 pp. $26 (hardcover).
When I first read excerpts from Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude in The New Yorker last spring, I got nervous. We had already decided to honor Lethem at the 25th anniversary gala of the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC). FAC has wrestled with abandonment and gentrification over the past three decades – across the same time and space of the book – through grassroots organizing and community development.
In this role, FAC has walked the razor’s edge of race and class issues. The board, staff and base are a unified but potentially volatile mix of long-time, working class and low-income residents (mostly people of color) and newer, progressive, upper-middle class ones (mostly white). Lethem’s new novel would be out just a month before our gala, and we hoped this would help sell tickets.
Lethem’s breakout book, Motherless Brooklyn, was a widely respected bestseller, and he has become one of the hottest young authors in the U.S. We knew The Fortress of Solitude was going to be about our neighborhood, the history of its gentrification, and the tortured and complex dynamics of race. We knew it centered on the lives of two young men – one white (Dylan Ebdus, whose life parallels Lethem’s) and one black (Mingus Rude) – who grow up as best friends on Dean Street in the 1970s, famously Brooklyn’s most desperate decade.
But the excerpt from The New Yorker gave me pause. It came from the first section of the book, a powerful evocation of that time, during which Mingus and Dylan share stoopball, comic books, early rap music and a ring that gives them heroic powers. Dylan grows up as the only white kid on the block, and one of only three in his school – as Dylan’s hippie mother brags to a friend before she permanently abandons Dylan and his father. Dylan is repeatedly “yoked” – his lunch or his pocket money or his bicycle stolen through tactics of low-level intimidation that leave him constantly terrified.
From Dylan’s childhood point of view, the pain and fear of being yoked is a defining emotional feature of the block and an act that defines race. At the same time, his goal, typified in his willingness to use Mingus’ graffiti tag (DOSE), is “to merge his identity in this way with the black kid’s, to lose his funkymusicwhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are both DOSE, no more and no less. A team, a united front, a brand name, an idea.”
I worried briefly that Lethem was mistaking the psychological pain of being yoked for the injustice of racism, and his nostalgia for cross-racial boyhood friendship as its solution. It turns out, of course, that these are the fears and longings of Dylan’s (and perhaps Lethem’s) childhood; but they are far from the whole story. The full story is a heartbreaking tale whose beauty is in capturing not only the loss of innocence in coming of age, but also the emotional and socio-economic pains of race and racism.
Even by the fifth grade, Dylan starts to have an eye for the broader injustices emerging in his neighborhood. In his public school, “The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else.”
The best-friendship of Dylan and Mingus is already badly strained by high school. Dylan increasingly hangs with Arthur Lomb, another white kid, and Mingus with Robert Woolfolk, Dylan’s archetypal yoker and lifelong nemesis. Then, in the summer of 1977 (the other blackout, the summer of Sam) – just as Mingus and Dylan are sharing cocaine in an impossible effort to recover their lost friendship – Mingus shoots his grandfather, who is pointing a gun at his stoned, washed-up former soul singer father. From this point on, Mingus and Robert Woolfolk are in and out of prison for much of their adult lives, in a cycle between the prisons of upstate New York and the housing projects of Brooklyn.
Dylan, on the other hand, heads for all-white Camden College (a thinly-disguised Bennington, where Lethem went). Even though he drops out after Arthur Lomb’s hilarious attempt to become the campus drug dealer, he nonetheless goes on to become a second-rate but modestly successful music critic, trading precisely on the street cred that his upbringing gives him. When he returns to visit Brooklyn in the late 90s, after vapid years in California, he is stunned by the gentrification that has transformed his neighborhood into a row of yuppie bistros, several of which are owned by his old friend, Arthur Lomb.
But Dylan and Mingus don’t reunite on the streets of Brooklyn. Instead, Dylan travels north (magic ring in tow) to the Watertown Correctional Facility, where Mingus is in prison. There, as repeated throughout the book, their superheroic intentions – Dylan’s guilt-inspired effort to reconcile with Mingus, and Mingus’ more selfless effort to save Robert Woolfolk – are betrayed by the ring and by the two themselves.
One of my favorite parts of the book is this recognition that, in both a metaphoric and real way, the flip-side of gentrification is the massive increase in the incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos in the 1980s and 1990s. I wish that more community groups would recognize this, and create programs like FAC’s Developing Justice, which seeks to create community-based alternatives, and organizes to change the so-called criminal justice system. Lethem sees both the stark prism of race – that the price of beautifying our urban neighborhoods is not simply benign displacement but the creation of a legion of “prisonaires” – as well as its many and deep ironies. Although Lethem did not know it at the time, the store where Dylan and Mingus buy their graffiti pens is the very site where mega-developer Bruce Ratner now proposes a sports arena for the New Jersey Nets, along with 40-story towers designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry.
This is not to say that Lethem is the patron novelist of community organizing or community development. At the FAC event, he acknowledged that it was his parents, not him, who were the social activists. In addition, he feels that “the story that was being told while [gentrification] was mounting was too simple. The anti-gentrification sentiment that there was a kind of lost Eden presumed that there had been one thing, and that that one thing was being attacked. [T]his has really always been a place of contradictions” (The New York Times, October 12, 2003). But what he observes is extraordinarily powerful, and in the end I was glad that we recognized him.
Dylan ends the book in a reverie for moments of the “collapsing middle…a fragile, utopian moment of possibility…, when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord run from a street lamp, when juice just flowed.” As critic A.O. Scott writes, this does not “of course, solve much of anything. A caped crime fighter is powerless against the shape-shifting demons of racism. A white boy might dream of becoming invisible, while a black man, whether or not he’s read Ralph Ellison, might worry that he already is. The ring may, then, seem like a distraction or a crutch, a bit of game playing to soothe the novelist’s well-established postmodernist allergy to realism. But I prefer to think of it as a sign of utopian possibility, a reminder of the mysterious human power, deeper than race or real estate that can, however fleetingly or futilely, transform fortresses of solitude into neighborhoods” (The New York Times, 9/21/03).
Dylan’s mistakes haunt me personally and professionally – well beyond the fundraising event – as we try to raise our children on an integrated block not far from Dean Street, with cross-racial friendships, progressive politics, and civic involvement in our neighborhood CDC. While we are perhaps less naïve than Dylan’s parents, we may be no less deluded. Mingus’s mistakes, made too common by the realities of racism and inequality, haunt thousands of families in our community. But I believe their shared childhood longings – illuminated here in a moving and ultimately heartbreaking way – reflect the desire not just of Dylan or Mingus, or even Lethem, but of so many of us, that our neighborhoods could, instead of fortresses of solitude, be places of friendship and justice. I believe unapologetically that this longing helps motivate our work and our life.
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