Through the knitting and unraveling of the friendship between Dylan and Mingus, Lethem creates an overwhelmingly rich and emotionally gripping canvas of race and class, superheros, gentrification, funk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging, loyalty, and memory.
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).