The Fortress of Solitude is the story of two friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Dylan is white, Mingus is black; both are growing up without mothers. Dylan’s father is an abstract artist who views himself as a sellout for painting cover art for sci-fi novels. Mingus’s father was the front-man for a Motown harmony group, but spends his days getting high and dreaming of a comeback.
Jonathan Lethem packs so much into the story that there are times reading it is like trying to drink from a firehose of 1970s culture. Dylan spends his days collecting comic books, perfecting street games, being “yoked” by older kids for his lunch money, and trying to hold his own with graffiti taggers, including Mingus. Drugs, sex, race, music, gentrification, crime, art – its all there, but all through the eyes of a kid.
The book has the multiple storylines and hard edge of a Don DiLillo novel, but without the unrelenting grimness because it is told from the point of view of a child who still has some optimism. The best thing about the book is how Lethem perfectly captures the half-perceptions and half-understandings that make a child’s memory.
In the second half of the book, the story flags. It is 1999 and Dylan is living in Berkeley. Mingus is in prison, where he has been off and on since turning to crack. Dylan fills in the details of the years gone by, but this part of the book all builds to a harebrained scheme to get Dylan out of prison.
Unfortunately, where the first part of the book is incredible in the sense of being amazing, the second part is incredible in the sense of not being believable. Dylan uses a “magic” ring he had since childhood to sneak into the prison, with tragic consequences. The ring made sense in the first part, where its magical powers could be explained as the alcoholic delusions of the derelict who passed it on to Dylan, or the fantasies of Dylan and Mingus who wanted to be superheroes. But when Dylan actually uses the ring to become invisible, the story takes a jarring turn to magical realism.
For readers willing to take whatever a story dishes out, the second half could be as entertaining as the first. But for those not willing to suspend disbelief to the point of accepting magic rings and invisibility, the ending will be a letdown.
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NOTESI listened to the unabridged audio version of this book, which I suspect made me like it more than I would have had I read all 500+ pages. The narrator did a terrific job with all the voices and brought the kaleidoscope images into focus.