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Black and white and painfully real

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Benjamin Kunkel writes for several publications, including The Believer and Dissent.

“Let’s pretend that I want to write a novel concerning the people or some of the people with whom I grew up,” James Baldwin, a native son of Harlem, once proposed in a talk called “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel.” What would this novel be like? For one thing, “the social realities with which these people ... were contending can’t be left out of the novel without falsifying their experience. And -- this is very important -- this all has something to do with the sight of that tormented, falling down, drunken, bleeding man I mentioned at the beginning. Who is he and what does he mean?”

In his sixth novel, Jonathan Lethem has written a book uncannily to the specifications of Baldwin’s grand, untested hypothesis. (Baldwin’s own novels lacked the sociological dimension he wished for.) In “The Fortress of Solitude,” Lethem’s narrator is a rare white kid in a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, the son of a fanatically solitary abstract painter and a flaky, pot-smoking mom in 1970s Brooklyn. He’s a boy in just about the same role of odd man out that Baldwin described more than 40 years ago: “I only knew Negroes except for one Jewish boy, the only white boy in an all-Negro elementary school.” As for that tormented, bleeding, falling down man, here his name is Aaron X. Doily, a homeless drunk whom Dylan Ebdus, the white kid, sees dropping from the sky one day.

Doily may be a human wreck, but he is also something of a comic-book superhero: the possessor of a magic ring that enables him, however poorly, to fly. Expiring in a hospital, he passes the ring and its powers along to Dylan, who shares his new capacities with his best friend, Mingus Rude. Dylan and Mingus are close friends into adolescence; they are wary and admiring of each other, excitable and shy. They come together over an identical taste in comics, and as they grow up and culturally move on, they make a silent deal of unconditional acceptance: “What was new in the other you pretended to take for granted, a bargain instinctively struck to ensure your own coping on the other end.” It would be a mistake not calling this love, and the boys handle their supernatural powers in much the same way as their love -- as something awkward, astonishing, fitful and private.

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The ring isn’t all that Dylan and Mingus have in common. They are both children of artists: an avant-garde painter doing science-fiction dust jackets for a living and a retired Motown front man subsisting on royalty checks and freebased cocaine. And like many a Lethem hero -- like the plucky earthling Pella Marsh in the sci-fi western “Girl in Landscape” or the Tourette’s-afflicted shamus Lionel Essrog in the goofy neo-noir “Motherless Brooklyn” -- the boys are without their mothers. This time, too, it’s a motherless Brooklyn.

In aligning the situations of black kid and white kid so neatly at the start, “The Fortress of Solitude” risks seeming schematic, and its theme of the sad separateness of races, neighborhoods and artistic genres is more explicitly sociological than an American novel usually dares to be. But Lethem has fused his exact and melancholy sociology with the remembered life of a street and has testified, in a proof of Baldwin’s hypothesis, to how intimately we experience not only family and friends and sex and drugs but also political and cultural landslides. After all, this is only realism, as the opponents of the so-called social novel typically forget. Lethem naturally, and with beautiful vividness, recalls “a Mister Softee truck’s incessant, circular tune,” the “blobby, swimmy” light of a city summer and the looming “glass-brick monolith of the Brooklyn House of Detention.” (Shades of the prison house begin, indeed, to close upon one of the growing boys.)

It’s equally natural that Lethem should note the steep growth of incarceration rates and Brooklyn property values, the substantial failure of school integration, the continued preference of white America for black entertainers over black neighbors. When we learn that the tough idyll of Mingus and Dylan’s childhood has been succeeded for Mingus by a series of prison terms, he is not made to symbolize the 1980s crack epidemic. But it would be a strangely blinkered novelist who didn’t acknowledge that he belongs to it.

“The Fortress of Solitude” consists of two long parts, the first a seemingly omniscient account of the boys’ youth, the second confirming our suspicion that a pensive adult Dylan is the narrator of this book as well as our fear that Mingus will land on the wrong side of the law. Fans of Lethem’s other novels -- his various admixtures, mockeries and homages to the genres of sci-fi, the western and noir -- may be surprised to find that, except for the occasional airborne excursion into Marvel Comics magic realism, this new novel is an earthbound work of plain realism. Black and white, punk and rap, prison and college: These supply all the book needs in the way of alien beings, violent frontiers and disillusioning investigations.

But style and genre remain crucial to Lethem’s sense of things, and the novelty and power of the book have something to do with his effort to look at the subjects of style and race together. By far the longest of Lethem’s books, “The Fortress of Solitude” is essentially a double album -- one of those strong midcareer outings, ambitious if somewhat overstuffed, meant to consolidate and renew the artist’s achievement. Between the two long-playing halves, Lethem has inserted some “Liner Notes” written by music journalist Dylan Ebdus for a box set celebrating Mingus’ father. Barrett Rude Jr.'s voice is one of the prized sounds in Dylan’s wall of CDs -- “the Ebdus collection of sad black folks,” as his black girlfriend calls it. Culturally, anyway, this is Dylan’s patrimony, and Barrett Rude’s “Bothered Blue” seems to him much more nearly the song of his self than his own father’s work does.

The United States since World War II has seen an unprecedented expansion and differentiation of marketed culture, so that genres of music in particular have become genres of people. We live by and through music, and Lethem is very good at describing what it’s like to exist three minutes at a time, in the passing absolute of a certain key. One of the decisive moments of the novel -- when Dylan decides to return to Brooklyn to seek out the Rudes, thinking, “I had to get back to where I once belonged” -- is sampled from a Beatles song.

More important is Dylan’s teenage switch to punk while Mingus stays funkadelic. The change accompanies his transfer to one of New York’s prestigious magnet high schools but is no side issue. Our tastes want to become the flavor of our lives, and the apparent ability to choose the genre and style of an experience, with no default option of simple realism, is part of what it means to be postmodern. The hero of “Motherless Brooklyn” who can’t talk quite right? The “Girl in Landscape” communing with neighborly aliens? In retrospect these seem like genre versions of the white kid in a black neighborhood, impossibly aspiring to speak and feel like the other kids. Nor, as Lethem knows, is this envious wish peculiar to him: Black singers, orators and rappers are often deputized to be the articulate soul of a nation otherwise most eloquent in its itemized credit card bills.

“The Fortress of Solitude” concludes with an older Dylan’s reminiscence about driving home with his father after he has been suspended from college for selling drugs. The shape of the novel quietly reminds us that when urban black kids are caught dealing, the penalty usually isn’t so light, but that is not exactly Dylan’s point, as he recalls listening with his father to a Brian Eno album on the car stereo:

“I considered now that what I loved in this record, and certain others ... was the middle space they conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream. And that same space, that unlikely proposition, was what I’d eventually come to hate and be embarrassed by, what I’d had to refuse in favor of Soul, in favor of Barrett Rude Junior and his defiant, unsubtle pain. I’d needed music that would tell it like it is, like I’d learned it to be, in the inner city.”

One thing Dylan has learned is a history lesson: how short-lived and painfully local was the informal white project (one more “hippie dream”) of neighborhood integration in the early 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement. “A middle space opened and closed like a glance,” he says, “you’d miss it if you blinked.” But if there is no racial middle space, and if Dylan and Lethem can’t sound black, and don’t want to sound dreamy and effete in the way of certain whites, what should they sound like? “The Fortress of Solitude” is notable for the admiring fidelity with which it reproduces the joking relations and the warm, rueful obscenity of black street talk. White people, by contrast, come across mostly as stammerers and rubes. (“Holy Moses!” exclaims a white prison guard.) Never mind jumping -- can white men talk?

“The Fortress of Solitude” is a funny and very sad book, exceptionally well made and keenly observed. So one would like to report that it only analyzes the problem of style and doesn’t illustrate it page after page. Yet it’s hard not to wish that Lethem’s busy, vaunting prose had more soul and less rap to it. His language is rhetorical, boastful of its smarts, given to wordplay and excessively alert to its own crippled swagger. Often it’s cleverly metaphorical at the expense of accuracy -- as in “his instrument, his throat and lungs, carried in the valise of his chest,” or “Dean Street, the eleven A.M. weekday edition.” How is a chest a valise or a street a newspaper? Likewise, Lethem will not only say that Dylan has been “allowed to merge his identity” with Mingus’ but will add that they are a “team, a united front, a brand name, an idea.” This is brain power as bling-bling -- as empty, conspicuous display. And in sounding at once like a rapper and like the teenage Dylan, with his “reference-laden palaver,” Lethem forfeits much of the inwardness that is still the special province of the novel as a form. We hear instead of overhearing Dylan -- and aren’t sure how his unguarded life might sound. That he too seems uncertain on this point is part of his pathos as a character but a liability all the same.

Yet even this large flaw can’t conceal the book’s tremendous insight, drama and feeling. “The Fortress of Solitude” is what lots of contemporary novels mean to be and few are: both intimate and vast, giving us social and private realities without seeming to falsify either. Whatever the costs of his style, Lethem has done something remarkable. Besides, according to the book’s argument, to let stylistic objections be prohibitive would mean shoring up the fortress (not entirely distinct from Baldwin’s “mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy”) that Lethem would like to help bring down. It would be a nice novel to see at the top of the charts. *

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From The Fortress of Solitude

On the vast tower planted at Manhattan’s mouth were two lavish word-paintings, red and white and green and yellow sprayed fantastically high on the rough stone, edges bled in geological texture.The first read MONO, the second LEE, syllables drained of meaning, like Mingus’s DOSE.

Dylan understood what Mingus wanted him to see. The painted names had conquered the bridge, pinned it to the secret street, claimed it for Brooklyn. The distance between Mono’s and Lee’s blaring, blurry, timeless ten-foot letters and the binder-scribble and wall-scribble, the gnomic marks everywhere, might be traceable, step by step. Tags and their invisible authors were the next skully or Marvel superheroes, the hidden lore. Mingus Rude pulled out his half-eaten knish and nibbled it and the two of them stood in awe, apes at a monolith, glimpsing if not understanding their future.... Nineteen seventy-five.


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