Brooklyn Belongs to Me

With the Fortress of Solitude, Genre Maestro Jonathan Lethem Immortalizes His Old Neighborhood

"As much as this place has been transformed, there are huge chunks of 1973 still lying around. I'm the one who left it. I wanted the book to be sort of mythic and metaphoric, but there's another way in which I wanted to make the backdrop—the gentrification of a couple of blocks of Boerum Hill—like a documentary. If I changed the facts, it's only because I wanted to make Dylan and Mingus into these super-witnesses, to bring everything under their gazes."

Boy in landscape: novelist Lethem on home turf
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Boy in landscape: novelist Lethem on home turf

In fact, Boerum Hill becomes the novel's most dizzying character. Lethem endlessly circles the neighborhood, his prose relentlessly picking at secrets hidden in pavements and in the row houses that had been "chopped into pieces and misused as rooming houses for men with hotplates and ashtrays and racing forms, or floor-through apartments, where sprawling families of cousins were crammed on each level." Yanking himself away from Dylan's childish perspective, he sees an adaptable place that has always churned with contradictions. Lethem considers the chic bistros and boutiques that now dot the neighborhood residue of the utopian aspirations that lured bohemians like his parents. As Dylan says mournfully, "A gentrification was a scar left by a dream."

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