Book Review: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Author: Jonathan Lethem
Title: The Fortress of Solitude
Publication Info: Books On Tape (2003), Audio CD
ISBN:  0736695273

Other Books By Same Author: Motherless Brooklyn


Lethem’s novel is set in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, 80’s, & 90’s and tells of the friendship of two boys: Dylan Ebdus one of the few white children in the neighborhood and his black friend and idol Mingus Rude.  Both boys live with fathers who are artists and emotionally distant from their sons and their mothers are completely absent from their lives.  So Dylan and Mingus have to make it on their own.  Lethem excels in the parts of the novel when his characters are younger and capturing the street scene of 1970’s Brooklyn – the games, the language, and the uneasy state of race relations.  There’s also a  magical element to the novel when Dylan finds a ring that allows him and Mingus to fly and they use it to try to fight crime.  Along the way the novel takes on many topics and tangents such as music of the 70’s & 80’s (from R&B to punk), the tagging culture, drug abuse, the lucky breaks Dylan gets from white privilege, and gentrification.  Dylan ruminates about feeling invisible in the mostly black neighborhood and the duality of his life in black Brooklyn and at his white high school and college.  I have no way of knowing for sure if Lethem was alluding to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk for these concepts of invisibility and duality, but either way it’s a bold move to apply these traits to the white character.

While overall this is a great novel and one I wanted to keep listening too, there are a few flaws.  For one thing I found it hard to believe that two teenage boys would make as little use  of a magic ring as they did, although I appreciate Lethem’s efforts to show that having magic powers in the “real world” can be more complicated than in comic books.  I also felt that the book may have been more successful if it ended earlier, at the end of Dylan and Mingus’ childhood with the liner notes “Part II” as an epilogue.  While “Part III” focusing on Dylan and Mingus as adults is interesting and has some really strong pieces, I felt that Dylan the narrator and Lethem the author were trying way too hard to find an explanation for Dylan’s childhood and some closure too the detriment of the novel overall.

Recommended books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg by Marshall Berman and Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser.
Rating: ***1/2

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