Cross-racial male friendship is an old American story – if you believe the likes of D. H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler, it is the American story, and the love between Dylan and Mingus goes, as Lawrence might have put it, ‘deeper than the deeps of sex,’ even as it includes some adolescent sexual experimentation … Dylan's biography, for all its hurt and fear, is also an unbeatable hipster résumé, an honor roll of authenticity and cool … if Dylan is imprisoned in irony, narcissism and the other temperamental limitations of his – why be coy, our – generation of overeducated whiteboys, Mingus's incarceration is more literal, and the book is at its most daring and least self-conscious in making his life more tragedy than case study … The naturalistic geography of a borough Lethem knows like the back of his hand is illuminated by a daub of magic realism, when Dylan and Mingus come into possession of a ring that gives them super powers.
Lethem has fused his exact and melancholy sociology with the remembered life of a street and has testified, in a proof of Baldwin's hypothesis, to how intimately we experience not only family and friends and sex and drugs but also political and cultural landslides … Style and genre remain crucial to Lethem's sense of things, and the novelty and power of the book have something to do with his effort to look at the subjects of style and race together. By far the longest of Lethem's books, The Fortress of Solitude is essentially a double album … The Fortress of Solitude is what lots of contemporary novels mean to be and few are: both intimate and vast, giving us social and private realities without seeming to falsify either.
The Fortress of Solitude begins where it best belongs, in the summer and on the street. The first part of this book, almost three hundred pages, represents a remarkable, often ravishing conjuration of the perpetual summer of childhood … Practically orphaned, and apparently intellectually orphaned too, Dylan gets progressively less interesting to us as he gets older, because as he gets older he becomes less the voyeuristic street kid of Brooklyn and more a mind of Manhattan—or ought to become such a mind, except that we are not informed of its existence … It is as if the delicate balance of the novel’s earlier style has been turned inside out. What was an allowable, even cherishable vernacular—the knowingness of boys who don’t know very much— becomes irritating when it is a man’s undemanding knowingness (or worse still, Lethem’s).
This is a story about fathers and sons, about best friends who grow apart, about the nervous subtext of race as it has played out in American society in the last three decades, and it demonstrates that Mr. Lethem does not need the tricked-up narrative strategies of his earlier books to hold the reader's attention … Despite the dubious Aeroman passages that pop up throughout this novel, Mr. Lethem does a magical job of conjuring up Dylan's day-to-day life: the multiple worlds that children inhabit – at home, at school, on the street – each world segregated from the other, each defined by unalterable codes and freighted with desperately guarded secrets.
Nerdy Dylan’s bohemian parents, avant-garde Abraham and radical hippie Rachel, move to Boerum Hill in Brooklyn just when the neighborhood is deciding whether to decay some more or gentrify, because they believe in community … A magic ring conferring the ability to fly would seem to belong more to one of Lethem’s earlier novels than this masterly, lyrical scan of childhood, a ligature of fellowship and blood ties. Before everything goes wrong about two thirds of the way through, Solitude has been perfectly poised between sense and stress, aura and object, the man who remembers and the boy who was there … Only in a comic book, and not very often there, will a magic trick harmonize the races or bring back your missing mother. Solitude, copping out, didn’t so much cheat the reader as it threw up its hands and shrugged us off.
The tree that Lethem grows in Brooklyn is named Dylan (after Bob Dylan), and for most of his early life he is the lone white child in a black and Latino neighborhood. The tensions, understandings and misunderstandings of this complex setting form the first half of The Fortress of Solitude … One notable, and respectable, aspect of Fortress is that its main character is hardly a heartwarming creature. Dylan is self-interested in childhood and adulthood, where he becomes a music writer, and it adds to his realism … A stylish meditation on childhood, couplehood, race, depression, sexuality, imagination, the oddities of public taste and motherless Brooklyn.
Heaving with self-importance, the novel is one of those monuments to itself where each insight and emotion seems the result of maximum resolve. It's as if Mr. Lethem is using his brow as a steam shovel, pushing this load forward until the inevitable luminous life-affirming last-paragraph epiphany … I wasn't held spellbound by the first half of the novel, tracking Dylan's early years, but its atmospheric texture has its own integrity. The second half is more ‘meta’ and a mess … By the time Dylan accidentally shoots a crack dealer in Oakland and fashions himself a Bernhard Goetz-Travis Bickle white vigilante superhero named Aeroman with a magic invisibility ring, it's hard to know where to look.
If Dylan sometimes seems pinned to a storyboard, it’s because Lethem seems more interested in describing the contents and principles of this childhood universe than in any of its specific occupants. The tone is simultaneously explanatory and elegiac, catalogued and mythologized … There is a near-inexhaustible supply of surprising verbal formulations, and the book is a lot of fun to read. But for all its postmodern point-of-view shifting and time-traveling trickery, The Fortress of Solitude, built as it is on a charming if somewhat squishy foundation of nostalgia, is in many ways a more conventional book than his last one … Lethem contrives to fire all the various guns that were hung on the wall in the first act, settling scores and accounts, fitting each character into an intricate master plan. But all the pyrotechnics are more like a salute to lost Dean Street than like a dramatic crescendo.
… a novel of boundless energy and startling insight about the conundrum adults impose on children by demanding that they live the ideal of integration that we've been unable to demonstrate ourselves … This is daring stuff, as dazzling for its style as for its politics. And it's packed full of enough pop culture references to send Dennis Miller scrambling to the encyclopedia … Lethem's sentences can just barely contain all he makes them accomplish as he spins ‘the ironized, reference-peppered palaver which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk.’ In fact, almost inevitably the book's structure begins to creak and break apart … The novel never regains the breathtaking verve of its childhood section. Then again, Dylan never regains the breathtaking verve of his childhood either, and that ultimately is the tragedy of The Fortress of Solitude.
The Fortress of Solitude is most assuredly a novel about all kinds of things – about the last 40 years in America, about popular culture as a salve for the unpopular – but maybe most of all, it's about how whites and blacks misunderstand each other. In exploring this, Lethem winds up confronting race in America with a specificity most white novelists since Mark Twain have been too chicken to try … How the lives of Dylan and Mingus diverge and, ultimately, reconnect, forms the soaring arc of this massively ambitious, profoundly accomplished novel. At its heart is the never-explained mystery of why a magic ring should bestow flight in youth but invisibility in middle age.
The Fortress of Solitude metaphor — taken from Superman's Antarctic base of operations — is hammered home again and again. Everyone has a fortress … The novel begins in the third person, to the detriment of the story's pace. It's difficult getting through this section, mostly because Lethem spends too much of his time telling instead of showing … Dylan's conversations, when he speaks at all, are short, staccato and to the point, as if using words weakens his wall of solitude. What dialogue there is from other characters flows easily, but there's not enough … The second half has everything the first half lacks. The narrative moves with a rhythm as smooth as the music to which Dylan has attuned his life.
Jonathan Lethem's remarkable new novel is more than a tribute; it's the author's own fortress. A 511-page social-realist epic chronicling the lives of two boyhood friends – Dylan and Mingus, one white, one black, and both motherless in 1970s Brooklyn – the book is a repository for all the junk and treasure, experiences and obsessions, of Lethem's life thus far … Save for one fantastical twist, it directly confronts the world in which we live, taking on everything from white liberal guilt and the politics of gentrification to the brutal realities of the prison system … If the first half of the book is embedded with stories and secrets, then the second half shoulders the burden of carrying them into adulthood. Once Dylan is an adult – clever and wry, he is the picture of emotional arrestment, unable to open himself completely to his black girlfriend, and stalled in his career packaging CD collections for a record label.
Lethem's novel is at its strongest in its early pages. The fledgling friendship that must find a way to negotiate the racial divide is wonderfully, achingly rendered in his electric prose … Dylan and Mingus are never developed beyond these few fledgling brushstrokes. In comic book parlance, they were merely penciled in; no one bothered to finish them in inks. Upon these bare skeletons, most particularly in the case of Dylan, who is relating the story, are hung the pop-culture decorations of the times. The reader is inundated with references to books, movies and music. It is here that we lose sight of what Dylan is like and become acquainted with what he likes … While this novel may not fulfill its early promise and the characters are at best blurred forms in a blizzard of cultural reference, at least the soundtrack is pitch-perfect.
Race is never forgotten, but Lethem never flattens his characters into mere racial symbols. The extended Rude family remain as believable, heart-rending and important to The Fortress of Solitude as Dylan’s … Lethem nails the communication of young boys, how hours can be spent piecing together the chronology of comic books, while personal information requires only the pass of a football … The Fortress of Solitude uses our history, from punk to crack to gentrification, not just for nostalgia’s sake, but to show how these events changed the lives of Mingus and Dylan.