What Jonathan Lethem has, and this is not at all a usual thing, is territory. He's wandered in time from postapocalpyse and fake apocalypse, through future worlds with killer kangaroos, to a black hole that makes time itself into metaphysics. But on the ground, he's been focusing in: The postcatastrophic F-train Brooklyn en route to the Planet of the Archbuilders (Girl in Landscape) gave way in the wonderful Motherless Brooklyn to "Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street." Now, his scene is a single streetóDean Street in Gowanus, at the moment it begins to soften into the realtors' dream of "Boerum Hill." Even when our hero moves away, Dean Street is like Superman's icebound Fortress of Solitude: the home of all he knows, if he can just face that fact.

This is local romance, a transfigured reminder of all those pulp novels about growing up in Brooklyn and either getting out or getting dragged back. It's also a challenge to the newspapers' claim that Brooklyn is the new writers' land, a literary territory you, too, can share for a rental deposit. Lethem writes about the Brooklyn you can't own, because he does.

He first resurrects it, gives it brilliant life, and then he sets his characters to meditate on how the wounds of that time might somehow heal and why all the living didn't stick. Through his surrogate Dylan Ebdus, Lethem hints he somehow failed Brooklyn as a test, had to Manhattanize; but he's also angry he can't be like the rappers, white or black, and wear his street experiences like badges: "What made me dangerous, or at least awful, wasn't my damage, but the way I'd denied it." Remembering is pain, and it's also a boast; that is the drama of the book. To be exact (because Lethem is), he sets all this in South Brooklyn, which is, of course, West Brooklyn if you don't remember the boundaries of the original village, in the zone Walt Whitman reckoned "would have been creditable to an old European town of the rural class" but where, according to the 1939 WPA Guide, "the residential blocks are squalid and overcrowded."

By the time Lethem gets there, Gowanus is mostly black, a bit Puerto Rican, and about to change again. The first hippies and artists are doing the realtors' business of opening up territory, polishing the pretty brownstones until they shine. The newcomers are still exceptions, and all that money they've sunk in window lining has left them with nothing worth stealing, so we're watching a brief truce in the perpetual Brooklyn war of shifting populations. Contact happens across the lines.

A white boy meets a black boy: Dylan Ebdus, son of a hippie and a determinedly failing artist, of a family "possibly famous for being white," meets Mingus Rude, son of a Motown burnout and a white mother. They're both new on the block. Mingus is a bit older; he'll be Dylan's protector, briefly his lover, mostly his instructor in how the world is, how you let yourself be shaken down, how to tag right, where drugs come from. But Dylan's going to become a graduate student, you just know, and then he'll go beyond being white and become a Californian; Mingus will shoot his preacher grandfather dead and go to jail. There's a calculus of race here that Lethem works industriously from every angle. Being black is the white boy's aspiration, which has something to do with the comic-book superheroes and something to do with his fear. "What age is a black boy when he learns he's scary?" Dylan gets to ask. Being white makes you the designated outsider on the street, the kid who can't catch while he's being watched in stickball, the victim when someone wants small change ("Hey, man, you got a dollar, man?"), but also the secret money that's blanching the neighborhood in its own, bistro-fied image.

Some of this is a bit close to cliché: Black boys go to jail, white boys go to college, Puerto Ricans sit outside bodegas; funkadelic singers dash about in clown posses and white limos; people close to R&B singers get shot like Marvin Gaye; Jewish kids play chess. But when you're adolescent, you need fixed points, the identities between which Lethem's characters slip: "Dylan never met anyone who wasn't about to change immediately into someone else." Those personae are what you are meant to be as well as what you are, and when you're learning the rules, what's the difference?

Yet Lethem never leaves a cliché unconsidered. He works subtly on your nerves, and he does so in bright, clear, multicolored panels of meaning: like a cartoon book. He catalogues the background music exactly enough, "discofied bullshit," middle-class punk, on into the 1990s and the power of rap, but the comics are the real point of reference: collected, studied, imitated, and valued but not quite in the manner of Jay Cantor or Michael Chabon. With Lethem, the comics are the fabric of the book: what happens, as well as how it is seen.

Mingus and Dylan find themselves a superhero, a flying loser known as Aeroman, but he's piss-stained, sleeping rough, and hopeless: a hero fit for a megalopolis. His magic ring first lets them fly a bit, to stop the odd mugger, and at the end it allows Dylan to move invisibly into Mingus's jailóinvisibility being a basic truth about superheroes, as Lethem points out, because nobody ever saw one. The allusion is almost too neat: The very first Superman (1933) was a Depression derelict, snatched by an alarming scientist whose potion gives him the ability to obtain stock-exchange profits, world domination, and the power of interplanetary telepathyóuntil the potion wears off.

On the streets, Dylan's a mole, hood up, eyes blind; like the Mole Men whom Superman once saved from the oil drillers, who lived, when they were translated into Spanish, in "El Mundo Perdido," another lost world like Lethem's. Mingus whacked out on coke is just a little like Our Boy on Kryptonite ("Looks good, mind if I try some?"). When Robert Woolfolk, neighborhood troublemaker, jumps from a prison tower expecting to fly, he's echoing the rumors about the death of George "Superman" Reeves.

The Fortress of Solitude itself, after all, wasn't always the frigid crystal palace of movie fame; in the 1958 strip it was an adolescent lair with oversize bowling pins, a gym, a model city in a bottle, pin-up photos of Lois Lane, andówhat every boy wants most of allóreassuringly big tools. The comics make Lethem's written Brooklyn possible; they solve the problem of how to be both exact and thrilling for a writer who has always played with the rules of genre, whose noir Motherless Brooklyn almost broke the rules down by being so specific that literary tourists now go in search of Zeod's deli. Yet he anticipated the issue in that book: "in detective stories things are always always," he wrote, "the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations. This or that runs deep or true to form, is invariable, exemplary. Oh sure. Seen it before, will see it again. Trust me on this one." If Lethem were any more specific, he would lose all the props of the genre. There's no generalizing when the particular is the point. Foreground is easily kept clear of the background in some imagined future world, but realism is more chaotic: Mothers, fathers, guys who want your small change, employers who don't want anyone rubbed out, and women whose sexuality isn't the plot, they all come rushing in. Detail fills out the prose so Lethem's old spare style turns, in this new book, to an unfamiliar lushness, sometimes three takes at the same point, one after the other.

The language still does its proper, transporting work; you feel you share these memories. The second half of the book works less well; for example, a Hollywood pitch meeting about the Prisonaires, which shows just how to package black singers, black pain for a white movie exec, seems crudely programmatic when Lethem's clever play with the comic strips has solved the basic problem: how to write such things at all. But this book keeps striking thoughts off you. Any story that starts in the '70s, as this one does, starts at just the historical moment when we decided such stories needed telling. The word "heritage" had become "one of the key words in American culture," as the historian Michael Kammen has written, "antiques fever" hit America, "interest in family history was running high." "Heritage" was a word tied up with real estate, tacked onto condos, advertised when some developer was throwing up both Loire châteaus and Irish manor houses on the same site; so what you chose to remember, and how, and what it said about who you were, all these things were bundled up with your place in the world, and with buying, moving, and real estate. Lethem has written a Gothick about gentrificationóof the block, of the soul. He isn't just footnoting some sideshow of urban life; he's at the heart of things.

Michael Pye's most recent novel is The Pieces from Berlin (Knopf, 2003).

 
     
     
 
top
 
     
   
     
 
 

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE BY JONATHAN LETHEM. NEW YORK: DOUBLEDAY. 528 PAGES $26. BUY NOW



Jonathan Lethem Bibliography

Gun, with Occasional Music. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994

Amnesia Moon. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995

The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996

As She Climbed Across the Table. New York: Doubleday, 1997

Girl in Landscape. New York: Doubleday, 1998

Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Kafka Americana with Carter Scholz. Burton, MI: Subterranean, 1999.

The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology edited by Jonathan Lethem. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

This Shape We're In. New York: McSweeney's Books, 2001