Jonathan Lethem sits in a Boerum Hill café nursing a mug full of grits. We’re just a few blocks from the house where he grew up, a place that haunts every crevice of his new novel, The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday, 511 pp., $26). It’s his second book about the neighborhood—1999’s Motherless Brooklyn lifted Lethem from cult stardom as a speculative-fiction wunderkind to literary-world eminence. A noir thriller starring an orphaned gumshoe with Tourette’s syndrome, Motherless Brooklyn dazzled readers with Lethem’s haywire prose. He prowled the threadbare precincts of detective fiction and found something new, just as he’d previously done with science fiction and westerns.
The Fortress of Solitude is a very different kind of book for Lethem: It feels dangerous, uncomfortable. Most of all it feels personal. After years of confining himself to the boundaries of genre fiction, he’s let loose with a raw, sprawling, 511-page opus on childhood, race, urban space, and loss. This could be Lethem’s stab at the Great American Novel, or as he calls it, a “big book”—more inspired by Dickens than Philip K. Dick. Set in the late ’60s and ’70s, The Fortress of Solitude follows Dylan Ebdus, the nerdy son of idealistic white bohemians who heedlessly drop him into a rough, almost entirely black neighborhood. They are the first in a wave that will eventually gentrify the area. Dylan’s mother sees public school as “a problem for him to solve,” leaving him alone to navigate an unstable world that constantly knocks him off balance. Often literally: Every time he leaves the pavement in front of his house, Dylan risks being yoked, an experience somewhere between a mugging and a ritual.
“The racially tinged tension was a constant in my school years,” says Lethem. “It had a quality of being an enactment or a performance of feelings and ideas that were lying around in chunks after the civil rights movement. Think about the first time a black kid is alert enough to tie a white kid’s brain in knots by taking his money and at the same time saying to him, ‘What, are you afraid of me? Are you a racist?’ An enormous consciousness of guilt and political undercurrent is present in that moment. I first had that experience in fourth or fifth grade. . . . ” Lethem’s voice trails off. “And yet I wasn’t going to go home and complain to my idealistic, leftist parents that I couldn’t go to school with black kids. It wasn’t possible to do that. And it isn’t simple to talk about these things even now.”
Fortress holds its own as a coming-of-age tale, but there’s also something else trapped between its pages: a poignant, stumbling evocation of a societal transformation left unfinished, a utopian project doomed before Dylan ever hit the streets. “I’d been pushed out like a blind finger, to probe a nonexistent space,” Dylan says in the book, “a whiteboy integrating public schools which were just then being abandoned, which were becoming only rehearsals for prison.”
Like so many of Lethem’s fictional heroes, Dylan lives in a kind of exile, but he nevertheless finds a best friend in Mingus. The new kid on the block and the son of a famous soul singer, Mingus adapts to his surroundings with far more ease than Dylan—too much ease, in fact. While Dylan easily scrambles out of the ghetto via Stuyvesant High School and college, Mingus becomes a true creature of the neighborhood, mutating from boy scout to graffiti artist to drug dealer and convict. In between, though, the two boys find deep spaces where their souls overlap: They attempt to merge identities in the graffiti tag Dose, and create a joint superhero alter ego called Aeroman. Their friendship is one of the novel’s most compelling, heartrending threads, despite the clumsily schematic names. Lethem admits that the names seem a little two-dimensional but explains that he wanted to conjure up some lost associations: “Dylan was the ur-name for that generation’s kids for the obvious reason. But the choice of Mingus’s name was a reminder of black hippie idealism and of a more fluid bohemian realm. In the time of my childhood, before the fist of Reaganism came down and divided the culture so completely again, there was integration in the cultural strata.”
Lethem spent most of his adult life avoiding this subject matter. Until recently, I thought of him as a California writer—that is, after all, where he spent the decade after he dropped out of Bennington, where his classmates included Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis. “I absolutely kept New York at arm’s length, because I was overwhelmed by the intensity and paradoxical quality of my childhood,” he explains with a shrug. “It was too much for me to contend with.” Lethem sometimes ventured close to this material in earlier books (particularly the beginning of 1998’s Girl in Landscape), but only covertly, embedding ideas about difference and community in settings like outer space or the desert, or rendering it as a zany cartoon à la Motherless Brooklyn.
Without being asked, Lethem brings up the question that will surely plague him in the wake of this new novel: How autobiographical is The Fortress of Solitude? He says that it bears a strong but indirect resemblance to his life. For instance, Dylan contains traces of Lethem, but so does Dylan’s artist father, who spends the book locked in his studio painstakingly painting on celluloid, a film that takes almost a lifetime to finish. “That process—really, it’s the confession of a novelist’s psyche. That’s what it’s like writing a long novel like this one, the tiny accretion day by day.” (In reality, Lethem says, his father is a sociable man, whose artwork is far more lively and colorful than that in the book.) And the novel’s other figures reflect “dozens of stories from different people” Lethem tracked down while gestating the book, most of whom have remained in the neighborhood all along.
“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.”
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.”