White Like Me

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Vintage. 509 pp. $14.95

In reviewing the fourth of the Jonathan Lethem novels that I’ve read in the past couple of months, I’m thinking two things. I’m somehow glad I waited to read this one last. It feels like a culmination, the most deeply personal work in Lethem’s oeuvre, though Dissident Gardens is more recent. The other thing is: this might be the best coming of age novel I’ve ever read. I can’t think of a better one. I certainly can’t think of one I’ve enjoyed more.

The Fortress of Solitude, like Motherless Brooklyn, is set in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill in Brooklyn, where my son has lived for the past ten years. I have the added pleasure of being able to picture the streets, at least as they are now. But Boerum Hill today is a much different place than it was when this novel takes place. The process of gentrification had barely begun. The family of Dylan Ebdus was the first white family on Dean Street, or at least one of the first, and Dylan was one of the few white people at the public schools he attended. We’ve heard the story of the lone black man trying to break into a white world. In this novel the tables are turned.

Lethem’s father is an artist, and his mother died when he was young; in this novel, the father is an extremely obscure and determined artist (he does science fiction book covers to make money), and the mother apparently leaves with another man, though it’s never entirely clear what happened. In any case, the sudden absence of a mother is a strong feeling in this book, and being stuck with a loving but uncommunicative father in a social milieu that is difficult to say the very least. It seems very much a book of its time, the seventies and eighties. It feels, as I’ve said before, like a book about my son’s generation.

The novel in many ways is the story of a single friendship, between Dylan and a black kid named Mingus Rude. (We see in the names the musical allegiances of the parents.) Mingus lives nearby, and his father, Barrett Rude Junior, was the lead singer of a doo-wop group, the Subtle Distinctions. He was actually the person who made the group what it was; it was his voice, as lead vocalist, that brought the group together. But like so many performers of popular music, though he was loaded with talent, and well known in the African American community, much in his career depended on breaks, and getting along with the right people, and reining himself in. By the time we meet him he is already a near has-been, though he’s still a young man. He occupies one floor of his brownstone, and Mingus mostly confines himself to another. Barrett Rude Senior eventually shows up, a Pentecostal who disapproves of the drugs and alcohol in the lives of his progeny, but who has had trouble keeping his hands off young woman. These people are the novel’s central characters, though various others are also important. It’s a long novel, a slow read, and worth every minute you spend on it.

I should mention one other. Robert Woolfolk is a slightly older black guy who torments Dylan from the time the novel opens until it is almost over. The black kids have this thing of “yoking” white kids: they put them in a headlock, almost in a friendly way, all the time going through their pockets and saying, “I’m not hurtin’ you, man, I’m just messin’ wit’ ya, you got a dollar or two you could let me have?” It’s a way the black kids have of robbing the white kids, taking their lunch money, but not quite getting in trouble; it’s just friendly enough so the white kids don’t report it. Robert in some way represents all the black kids who ever did such a thing to Dylan. Early in his life, when she was still around, Dylan’s mother Rachel smacked Robert around for what he was doing, and he never forgot that humiliation. He always had it in for Dylan, as long as they knew each other.

Despite any number of digressions, all of them enjoyable, the novel is really the story of the friendship of Dylan and Mingus, who is one year older than he. Both are motherless. Both have fathers who are talented but rather ineffectual artists. Both are themselves talented and intelligent guys, trying to live a life in the world that has been given to them. Dylan is white, of course, so he has “all the advantages,” but not in Boerum Hill in the seventies. He might as well have been a black guy in rural Mississippi for the way he was treated. (There is some suggestion that it was Rachel’s values that compelled them to live there, and to leave Dylan in public school, and of course she wasn’t around for the aftermath.) Mingus could only do so much to help his friend. He could hang out with him, he could let Dylan hang with him and his black friends, but he couldn’t stop the yoking by other guys; he couldn’t especially protect his friend, in any of the schools he went to. That was part of the situation. Mingus could only do so much.

This was one of those novels that made me glad I grew up when I did. The fifties and sixties were difficult in their own way, but this slowly integrating period of a later day, when people were trying to figure out this new configuration (I guess we still are) seems more difficult. I was stunned by the casual drug use in this novel, by the drugs that these otherwise intelligent young men used. People take snorts of cocaine in this novel the way guys my age drank a beer. I was also startled by the moment, when the boys were adolescents but not quite ready for girls, when their friendship became sexual. They weren’t gay; they were just fooling around. And I was stunned when Barrett Junior found them doing that and didn’t especially object. He was a sophisticated man in his own way. But the whole milieu seems more difficult and complicated and perilous than the one I grew up in.

The dividing line in their lives comes when it’s time to go to college and Dylan has the resources but Mingus does not. He would have, of course, but by that time he’s a dropout, somebody who lives largely on the streets. Dylan has engaged in many of the same behaviors, but he’s able to pull out of them better, though he first goes off to an expensive New England college and flunks out, then winds up out in Berkeley, where he finds a career writing about music. It seems that the same lives have led one of these guys to college and the other—this is a spoiler, I suppose—to prison. That’s where the real racial divide is. The white kids do drugs at their expensive New England college and people look after them, keep them out of trouble. The black kids do drugs and wind up in the slammer. The scene where Dylan finally goes to see Mingus in prison is moving almost beyond belief, absolutely heartbreaking.

It wouldn’t be a Jonathan Lethem novel, as my son says, without some sci fi/supernatural element. In this case it’s a ring that alternately makes people able to fly and makes them invisible. You’re never sure which, though you’d better be sure before you jump off a building. It’s remarkable how Lethem can include such a detail while not detracting from what is basically a realistic novel. We buy right into it.

I feel as if I’ve said too much but haven’t even begun to suggest the depth and richness of this novel. There are important characters in this story, people I’ll remember for years, whom I haven’t mentioned, like Dylan’s white friend Arthur Lomb, who trips up as a teenager but makes an amazing comeback as an adult; or a waitress out in Berkeley named Katha who had a one-night stand with Dylan but whose barely-expressed values made him turn his life around. The writing, as always in a Lethem novel, is beautifully done, endlessly pleasurable. I read the book slowly because I didn’t want it to end. I said about Dissident Gardens that it told the story of the left in the past two centuries. The Fortress of Solitude isn’t quite as wide ranging, but it sums up a couple of important decades. I can’t recommend this book too highly. I think it’s a great novel, and Jonathan Lethem is a major American novelist.