Today the trendy restaurant row Smith Street marks one boundary of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, as many New Yorkers could tell you. I live just around the corner. If I walk out and along Smith, I can also find a yoga studio, a handful of boutiques selling designer clothes, and an expensive, austere flower shop. But as you remember—since you, like me, grew up here—some 30 years ago, Boerum Hill was just experiencing the first throes of gentrification: that “Nixon word,” as Rachel, the hippie mother in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude scornfully calls it. Racial tensions were high, and so was crime. There were no yoga studios. There was just a handful of idealistic white families learning to live by the Gowanus Housing Projects and, according to Lethem’s novel, an entrepreneurial woman, Isabel Vendle, determined to bring the sound of renovation to the neighborhood.
Rachel and Abraham Ebdus are of the idealistic sort—Rachel is a fierce-minded, chain-smoking spitfire, and he a laconic experimental painter. Not only have they moved to Gowanus to be on the vanguard of social change, but Rachel is determined to send her only son, Dylan, to public school, not a private school like St. Ann’s (where we both went) or Packer or Brooklyn Friends. Once he’s there, she brags about the fact that he is one of three white children—not in his grade, but in the entire school. Dylan, a bookish, withdrawn kid, is swept into an eddy of ritualized street life, defined by a heady anxiety: afternoons spent playing stickball, nights lit up by the giddy thrill of tagging (writing graffiti), afternoons spent avoiding a “yoking”—a shakedown at the hands of local black boys. He forges a friendship with Mingus Rude, the son of a once-talented black singer. Like Dylan, Mingus is named after a musician, and like Dylan, whose mother suddenly runs away, he is motherless. But unlike Dylan, Mingus is black, and ultimately this fact will divide them. Mingus, Dylan tells us as an adult, is “the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover.” The novel is the story of their friendship.
This is promising and unusual territory for a modern coming-of-age novel, which in recent years has focused more often than not on the suburbs. Unlike the big fall books of years past—The Corrections, Middlesex—this one is about life in the city and what it actually felt like to grow up in the intense, confusing, multiracial neighborhoods that make up most American metropolitan areas. And Lethem realizes his story marvelously. Like Lethem, I grew up in Brooklyn, in a predominantly black neighborhood ravaged by crack, and he captures the tension—and weird thrill—of being a stranger in your own neighborhood, entranced by the materials and language of a world you lived in but were not entirely of. We have plenty of novels about latter-day Salinger protagonists on the Upper East Side but not many about a middle-class child stranded between two cities in the ‘70s. Lethem writes about boyhood, but he’s also telling a relatively untold story about race.
And he tells it in a dazzling way, shifting in and out of his characters’ points of view, crosscutting from an intimate portrayal of Dylan’s childhood to a long-scale historical standpoint, replete with Nietzschean riffs and literary and pop culture allusions. This isn’t surprising, since Lethem is known for his formal inventiveness—think of the Tourettian tics of the narrator of Motherless Brooklyn. But while The Fortress of Solitude’s formal complexities are impressive, what’s most amazing to me is how full of feeling it is.
Lethem has a Proustian grasp of the tactile intensity of childhood, and his writing about what it feels like to be a boy navigating the rhythms of street life is crammed with delights—whether it’s how there can be two kinds of time in a house, and both too slow for a boy; or how a kid walks down a dilapidated city street, memorizing the idiosyncrasies of the slate sidewalks (“The long tilted slabs or the one sticking-up moonlike shape or the patch of concrete or the shattered pothole that always filled with water”). Then there’s Lethem’s mythopoetic account of a neighborhood coming into being—a vision of newly arrived white girls rollerskating in nightgowns on Dean Street in the dusk; the quasi-allegorical figure of Isabel Vendle looming over it all. It’s amazing to me that he can pack this all in.
All this said, this novel is not without its flaws. For one thing, it’s too long, and the prose can run toward self-conscious exposition and overheated description. For another, it’s divided oddly into two parts—which we should get to later. Finally, a curious part of the book involves a plotline with a magic ring and a caped superhero, a bit of fancy-fingered surrealism that some critics have dismissed as a misplaced legacy of Lethem’s sci-fi past in Girl in Landscape, and other novels. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times thought it a frivolity that should have been disposed with. I wonder. What did you make of it? Is it possible that it’s something deeper—a way of describing what, to a kid, the great pleasure of a city is, the magic lurking in a smelly corner of the subway, or behind the great iron grates of a prison? And if so, did you find anything to enjoy in it—and do you think that readers who grew up outside New York will?
P.S.: Full discosure: I should add that I edited a memoir by Lethem when I worked at The New Yorker.