"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."
The Fortress of Solitude is a very different kind of novel in many ways from Lethem's previous works. It is sprawling where he has tended to be concise, and it is more socially realistic than his other books, most of which have been mostly sci-fi and dystopian visions. But really, only the surface is different. Beneath the hard-boiled futuristic San Francisco private investigator in Lethem's first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music–a Philip Marlowe meets Philip K. Dick marvel–is the same nostalgia for a world gone by that the adult Dylan Ebdus feels for Brooklyn. Gun was the first of a series of genre-bending books that Lethem published between 1994 and 1999, but despite their disparate forms, all of them kept the idea of maneuvering through multiple worlds at their core. Amnesia Moon (1995) is about mind control and dreamscapes, but really about how people make their own realities. Lethem followed it with As She Climbed Across the Table, a nearly ordinary campus novel that dives into new dimensions when a young female physics professor falls in love with a man-made black hole in the college laboratory nicknamed "Lack" and becomes obsessed with getting through it to the other side.
All of this time, one senses, Lethem was dancing around the one idea in his head that wouldn't go away, his own parallel universe: Brooklyn. He began to creep back to it in novel number four, Girl in Landscape, where his home borough appeared in the novel's opening chapters as a ruined, ozone-depleted shell of itself, a place only worth abandoning for another planet. When his characters resettle on their new frontier, Brooklyn remains a symbol of everything lost to them. They're Dylan Ebdus gone intergalactic instead of just to California.
It was Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem's fifth novel in as many years, that finally landed him back in the old neighborhood, with a bang that woke the literary world. He dreamed up a group of orphans, some Italian mobsters and Lionel Essrog, an intense, utterly endearing amateur private eye with Tourette's syndrome. Lethem left the other dimensions of science fiction behind, finally, but created a different kind of alternate universe in Essrog's mind, a place in which words take on different meaning and all bets are off concerning the ordinary rules of conversation and behavior. "I seethed behind the scenes with language and conspiracies, inversions of logic, sudden jerks and jabs of insult," he confesses. In Lethem's hands, this half-dark world of faulty brain wiring is as whole and convincing as the streets of Brooklyn, a place into which it's possible to disappear entirely. As Essrog notes: "A Touretter can also be The Invisible Man."
Which brings us back to The Fortress of Solitude, and a certain afternoon in Dylan Ebdus's 14th year on which he thinks his whole life will change, a promise that is fulfilled but not in the ways he expects. He is given a ring by a homeless man, and before long, he discovers that it gives him the power to fly. He shares his secret with Mingus, and the two of them together–still two boys against the world despite their divergent paths, Dylan to a good high school and Mingus to full-time drug addiction–take on the persona of Aeroman, a crime-fighting superhero, complete with costume, who ends up using his powers to put graffiti in hard-to-reach places instead of to save people, as they intend. When they grow older, the power of the ring changes inexplicably, now making its wearer invisible. "When…the ring first came into my hand I believed that flying was the denominator, the bottom line of superheroic being," Dylan muses in retrospect. "Any superhero flew, even if they had to cheat by vaulting or floating on bubbles of conjured force or riding in hovercraft. So it was a flying ring. By the time I wore it again on that Berkeley hill I knew differently. Invisibility was what every superhero really had in common. After all, who'd ever seen one?"
While it doesn't lead to safer streets, finally the ring does fulfill a purpose both for Dylan and for the resolution of Lethem's novel. By granting him the power to literally disappear, the trinket gives him a way to make peace with having been somehow invisible his entire life. "I'd spent fifteen or twenty years being angry at rappers, black and white equally, for their pretense, for claiming the right to wear street experiences, real or feigned, like badges, when mine were unshown," he acknowledges toward the end of the book, soon after he's spent hours devoting himself to writing the liner notes for a box set of Barrett Rude Jr.'s music lest it be forgotten. "I'd spent fifteen or twenty years senselessly furious at them one and all for…being ahistorical and a lie…for not knowing what I knew." Apparently even secret powers can't save us from ourselves until we do the hard work alone. And if it seems a bit odd to include an entirely fantastical subplot in the midst of a novel so firmly, even painfully, rooted in the real world, well, it is. But only a very little bit. It has always been one of Lethem's gifts as a writer to make even his most futuristic, postapocalyptic universes and characters as humane and well observed as the city streets he chronicles in The Fortress of Solitude. If anyone can make you believe it's possible to fall in love with a void, or that a homeless man can fly and a prison break can be aided by powers of invisibility, it's him.
Ultimately, of course, the flying and the prison break aren't the issues: Loss is. "This change in the ring seemed a message that Aeroman had grown up," Dylan realizes. "Invisibility was sly and urban and might just do the trick. I was made ready for something." And so, he makes peace with the spiriting away of his cosmos by nasty old progress–"The O'Jays and Manhattans and Barry White ballads we'd loathed were now, with well-mixed martinis or a good zinfandel, foundation elements in any reasonably competent seduction. From the evidence of the radio I might have come of age in a race-blind utopia."–and the disappearance of his mother, and when he's done, he looks at his life head-on and sees it for the first time. "Abraham was the father I never had, and Rachel was the mother I never had, and Gowanus or Boerum Hill was the home I never had, everything was only itself however many names it carried."
This leaves Mingus, now sitting in prison upstate and not entirely unhappy about it. Dylan goes to see him, and understands that his friend has also discovered that youth flares much brighter in the mind than anywhere else, that "the stories you told yourself–which you pretended to recall as if they'd happened every afternoon of an infinite summer–were really a pocketful of days distorted into legend, another jailhouse exaggeration, like the dimensions of those ballpoint-crosshatched tits or of the purported mountains of blow you once used to enjoy, or how you'd bellowed an avenger's roar when you squeezed the trigger of a pistol you'd actually brandished in self-pissing terror. How often had that hydrant even been opened? Did you jet water through a car window, what, twice at best? Summer burned just a few afternoons long, in the end."
The original Fortress of Solitude was Superman's private retreat, carved into a mountainside near the North Pole. In it, he secreted likenesses of his friends, his parents, the people whose lives he was trying to save and a host of other private mementos he wanted to keep safe and ponder on occasion. Lethem's Fortress of Solitude is its author's own time capsule–his whole world stowed away, perhaps as a touchstone for rough days ahead. Unlike Superman's cavern, though, it is a profoundly generous place, both in what it forgives and in its proprietor's willingness to invite us, fortunate guests, inside.