2007: 133. The Fortress of Solitude


“Like a match struck in a darkened room:

Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock in an evening in July.”

The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

I had real problems with this book.  I bought it for my trip to Lake George, New York, in July, and finished it on my way home from Maine in August, and only then because it was the only book I brought with me (to force me to read it when I was a captive audience in the airplane).  I am torn about it, because I appreciate that it has a lot to recommend it, but I just did not enjoy reading large swaths of the book (other parts I tore through - does this suggest that Lethem needs a better editor?).

It tells the story of Dylan Ebdus, whose parents move to a bad section of Brooklyn, and whose mother then takes off to find herself (ah, yes, the book *is* set in the seventies), and leaves him to fend for himself with his hapless father in a world where he sticks out like a sore thumb - he is the only white kid in his class until he gets into Stuyvesant for high school.*  Dylan struggles to find his place in the world between black and white and rich and poor.  It is also the story of his best friend, Mingus, whose father was a Motown star, but who drifts into a life of crime.

Things that I liked - how Lethem captures that world of Brooklyn in the 1970’s.  The wackily cool superhero angle.  The various father-son relationships - to me, that is what the book was really about, most of all, though of course, race relations runs a close second.  I loved the passage where Dylan’s father and Mingus’s father both emerge into the world.

“Fathers, fathers, why so grim? Today you emerged from your houses, your hiding, and were warmly welcomed.  Smile, fathers.  Relax.  Today the world wants you in it.”  pg. 132, paperback edition. 

Lethem has interesting things to say, for sure, about how we become who we are, and what role our families, our race, and randomness all play a role.

What I didn’t like - I get that Lethem is an arty writer, but a lot of the book felt, frankly, overwritten.  It’s like no one ever told him to cut the passages you love best. Even the quote above flirts with going too far into precious nonsense.  Lethem’s story would have been better served with less of that - it covers up what he’s trying to say, in my opinion.  Also, I have to admit that I found it extremely stressful to read about Dylan’s life and all the stupid and irresponsible things he did, and almost did.  The part where he gets kicked out of Bennington (under a pseudonym but still) for dealing coke made me crazy.  I know, I know that I am too type A for my own nature, but I hate reading about other people fucking up in this particular drifty druggy way. Grr.

Recommended for:  People who want to think about race relations in America, New York in the 1970’s, Brooklyn, fathers, son, and motherless children, and have patience for an overwritten book.

*Loved this quote, pg. 218, paperback edition:  “Stuyvesant was Jewish white, Wasp white, hippie white, Chinese, black, Puerto Rican, and much else, but crucially it was nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd, the great family of those able to ace the entrance exam.”  Nerd solidarity, yo.

Date/Place Completed: 8/19/07; Flying back from Maine

Categories:  Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017