The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003)

It took me three tries to get through this book, but as the adage goes, the third time was the charm.  You can’t be in a hurry or distracted by other tasks or in the mood for a page-turner.  So a lazy summer weekend was the perfect time for Lethem’s detailed descriptions of 1970’s Brooklyn with its grit, racial tension, industrial pollution, graffiti, cocaine, comic books, and gentrification. It reminded me of four other books morphed together: Kavalier and Clay (comics, superheroes, and Jewish kids), Let the Great World Spin (a story held together by setting more than plot or characters), The Corrections (detailed characters that take a while to care about), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (punk music and abrupt scene changes). This story centers around Dylan Ebdus (aka whiteboy), raised by his artist father, and Mingus Rude, black, and raised by his washed-up-musician-cocaine-addict father.  Dylan sees Mingus as an “exploding bomb of possibilities” It’s an unlikely friendship begun in elementary school with comic books and stick ball and tagging and life on Dean street.

Lethem’s writing is like a zoom lens.  He focuses in on a scene, giving us every detail, and then boom—switches to a new scene, new characters, new setting.  Not much panning around or smoothly shifting to a new focus.  It’s a little disconcerting for the first hundred pages or so, but then I got used to his style.  What’s most striking, though, is the writing itself—the way he captures the landscape, physically and sociologically.  His description of NY public schools: “Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong.  Nothing changed outright.  Instead, it teetered.  You’d pushed futility in public school 38 so long by then you expected the building itself would be embarrassed and quit.  The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors.” And later, Lethem writes about gentrification: “The white families appear continuously these days, now too many to count, but collectively they’re still a dream, a projection. . .The renovators—that’s a polite word for them—they’re a set of ghosts from the future hunting the ghetto present.  They’re a proposition, a sketch.  Blink and they might be gone.”

Impressive stuff.  He cuts to the heart of issues without preaching or moralizing.  He just describes.  This is a book that could—and probably should—be read twice.  (fiction).

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