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Black and white and painfully real

The Fortress of Solitude A Novel Jonathan Lethem Doubleday: 470 pp., $26

September 14, 2003|Benjamin Kunkel | Benjamin Kunkel writes for several publications, including The Believer and Dissent.

"Let's pretend that I want to write a novel concerning the people or some of the people with whom I grew up," James Baldwin, a native son of Harlem, once proposed in a talk called "Notes for a Hypothetical Novel." What would this novel be like? For one thing, "the social realities with which these people ... were contending can't be left out of the novel without falsifying their experience. And -- this is very important -- this all has something to do with the sight of that tormented, falling down, drunken, bleeding man I mentioned at the beginning. Who is he and what does he mean?"

In his sixth novel, Jonathan Lethem has written a book uncannily to the specifications of Baldwin's grand, untested hypothesis. (Baldwin's own novels lacked the sociological dimension he wished for.) In "The Fortress of Solitude," Lethem's narrator is a rare white kid in a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, the son of a fanatically solitary abstract painter and a flaky, pot-smoking mom in 1970s Brooklyn. He's a boy in just about the same role of odd man out that Baldwin described more than 40 years ago: "I only knew Negroes except for one Jewish boy, the only white boy in an all-Negro elementary school." As for that tormented, bleeding, falling down man, here his name is Aaron X. Doily, a homeless drunk whom Dylan Ebdus, the white kid, sees dropping from the sky one day.

Doily may be a human wreck, but he is also something of a comic-book superhero: the possessor of a magic ring that enables him, however poorly, to fly. Expiring in a hospital, he passes the ring and its powers along to Dylan, who shares his new capacities with his best friend, Mingus Rude. Dylan and Mingus are close friends into adolescence; they are wary and admiring of each other, excitable and shy. They come together over an identical taste in comics, and as they grow up and culturally move on, they make a silent deal of unconditional acceptance: "What was new in the other you pretended to take for granted, a bargain instinctively struck to ensure your own coping on the other end." It would be a mistake not calling this love, and the boys handle their supernatural powers in much the same way as their love -- as something awkward, astonishing, fitful and private.

The ring isn't all that Dylan and Mingus have in common. They are both children of artists: an avant-garde painter doing science-fiction dust jackets for a living and a retired Motown front man subsisting on royalty checks and freebased cocaine. And like many a Lethem hero -- like the plucky earthling Pella Marsh in the sci-fi western "Girl in Landscape" or the Tourette's-afflicted shamus Lionel Essrog in the goofy neo-noir "Motherless Brooklyn" -- the boys are without their mothers. This time, too, it's a motherless Brooklyn.

In aligning the situations of black kid and white kid so neatly at the start, "The Fortress of Solitude" risks seeming schematic, and its theme of the sad separateness of races, neighborhoods and artistic genres is more explicitly sociological than an American novel usually dares to be. But 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. After all, this is only realism, as the opponents of the so-called social novel typically forget. Lethem naturally, and with beautiful vividness, recalls "a Mister Softee truck's incessant, circular tune," the "blobby, swimmy" light of a city summer and the looming "glass-brick monolith of the Brooklyn House of Detention." (Shades of the prison house begin, indeed, to close upon one of the growing boys.)

It's equally natural that Lethem should note the steep growth of incarceration rates and Brooklyn property values, the substantial failure of school integration, the continued preference of white America for black entertainers over black neighbors. When we learn that the tough idyll of Mingus and Dylan's childhood has been succeeded for Mingus by a series of prison terms, he is not made to symbolize the 1980s crack epidemic. But it would be a strangely blinkered novelist who didn't acknowledge that he belongs to it.

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