"There were two worlds." So begins Dylan Ebdus, the boy hero who grows up in the pages of The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem's rich, dizzying new novel of Brooklyn, adolescence, comic books, crime, doo-wop, punk, fathers, sons and a thousand other phenomena, including supernatural powers. It is 1970-something, and everywhere Dylan looks it seems clear that, as the law of physics has it, for every force, there is an opposite but equal force; "two worlds" doesn't even begin to cover it. There is the relatively sheltered space inside his hippie parents' brownstone versus the lawless terrain of busted-slate sidewalks and racially motivated bullies outside it. Thanks to his parents' bohemian delusions, Dylan is the only white kid on his block. His best friend, Mingus Rude, is black, the son of a spent, increasingly drug-addled soul singer named Barrett Rude Jr., who lives down the street. The two of them, named for musical legends that mark their origins every bit as clearly as their skin tones, form a little universe that defies the social contracts of the neighborhood--two color-blind boys against the world.
Add to this Dylan's own father, Abraham, an unhappy man secreted away in the top floor of the family brownstone painting endless frames of an abstract movie, and the eventual lure of a possibly more peaceful Manhattan high school across the river as the antidote to Brooklyn middle school terror, and it isn't difficult to understand why young Dylan feels the need to categorize. He's desperate to figure out what belongs where, not least himself. But he's handicapped from the start. Early in the novel, his mother, Rachel, abandons her husband and son, present thereafter only through a series of inscrutable postcards sent from the open road. She imparts to her only child enormous pain, as well as the lesson that no matter how hard he tries to understand the parameters of his life, they'll always elude him. When Dylan eventually leaves home, he learns the painful inverse of that lesson: No matter what world you live in, the ones you've left behind stay with you, parallel universes of your own imagination. Living on the West Coast, having grown up to be a music critic, he tells his irritated California girlfriend, "My childhood is the only part of my life that wasn't... overwhelmed by my childhood."
Dylan's tales of growing up take up the bulk of Lethem's novel, and they are the best part of it, too. The angst of Dylan the adult is more annoying than compelling, especially compared with his youthful crises, and Lethem's writing in the later sections of the novel loses the elastic, intensely dreamy quality that binds Dylan's early life so magically to the streets in which it takes place. The Fortress of Solitude is as much autobiographical Bildungsroman as anything else--Dylan follows the path Lethem has followed, away from Brooklyn to Bennington (called Camden here) and Berkeley, and finally home again in an effort to resolve his past--and the novel is Lethem's valentine to the complicated, perilous and intermittently gorgeous hours of his childhood. He writes as only the truly smitten can:
Two afternoons a week, sitting in the dimming light on Dylan's stoop, never discussing fifth or sixth grade, stuff too basic and mysterious to mention. Instead just paging through, shoulders hunched to protect flimsy covers from the wind, puzzling out the last dram, the last square inch of information, the credits, the letters page, the copyright, the Sea-Monkeys ads, the insult that made a man out of Mac. Then, just when you thought you were alone, Dean Street came back to life, Mingus Rude knowing everyone, saying Yo to a million different kids coming out of Ramirez's store with a Yoo-Hoo or a Pixy Stix, to Alberto fetching Schlitz and Marlboros for his older brother and his older brother's girlfriend. The block an island of time, school a million miles away, mothers calling kids inside, the bus lit inside now, fat ladies coming home from offices at the Board of Education on Livingston Street, their weary shapes like black teeth inside the glowing mouth of the bus, Marilla strolling by a million times singing It's true, hah, sometimes you rilly do abuse me, you get me in a crowd of high class pee-pul, then you act real rude to me, the light fading anxiously, streetlights buzzing as they lit, their arched poles decorated with boomeranged-up sneakers.
The Fortress of Solitude is crammed with such pleasurable minutiae--the social currency of the pink rubber Spaldeen ball (which, incidentally, you can buy through a link on the FOS website), the intricacies of preserving first editions of comic books in mylar bags, the proper way to chalk a sidewalk game, the correct method of heisting spray paint from a department store, and on and on. It also captures the roiling of the era in broader sweeps. The tensions and fault lines of the 1970s and '80s run through it as crookedly as the cracked paving stones, and scattered all around them are the Puerto Rican girls with their jewelry, swiveling their mesmerizing hips, the forays into graffiti and drugs, the projects and crack dens, the drooping ailanthus trees on every block and the nerdy classmate who teaches Dylan how to play chess and fakes asthma attacks when he's in danger of getting beat up on the playground. All together, the multitude evokes, with considerable poignancy, not just a Brooklyn childhood but the long taffy-pull of time that seems to go on forever while one waits to grow up anywhere, fear and amazement combining and recombining every moment. And yet somehow, the growing up happens. As Dylan reflects soberly at one point during his middle school career: "It wasn't for children, seventh grade. You could read the stress of even entering the building in the postures of the teachers, the security guards. Nobody could relax in such a racial and hormonal disaster area. Bodies ranged like ugly cartoons, as though someone without talent was scribbling in flesh."