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'The Fortress of Solitude' by Jonathan Lethem

Brooklyn boys falter after promising start in evocative 'Fortress'

Sunday, November 02, 2003

By Kristofer Collins

In Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity," Rob, the caustic record-shop owner, says it's more important what a person likes than what a person is like.

"The Fortress of Solitude"

By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday ($26)


Jonathan Lethem, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Motherless Brooklyn," his previous novel, has apparently taken Rob's words to heart. He has created an exuberant, loving and, at its heart, empty paean to the things his characters like.

His new novel is the story of two motherless boys. Dylan Ebdus, who is white, is moved to Brooklyn by his mother, Rachel. She then abandons him and his artist-filmmaker father, Abraham, to run off to a hippie commune.

Mingus Rude, who is black, moves to the same street with his father, a once famous soul singer named Barrett Rude Jr., after his parents' divorce. The novel tracks the boys' friendship from the 1970s to the '90s as well as the gentrification of their Brooklyn neighborhood.

Dylan, a walking target for pranks and petty crime, clings to Mingus for safety and guidance. It is Mingus who invites him to play stoopball with the other neighborhood kids where, as Lethem writes, "you evolved in full view and secretly at once, grew bony and hairy, twisted out a baby tooth and spat blood and kept playing, claimed to know certain words the first time you heard them."

Lethem's evocation of the profound mysteries of life that boys are heir to is nowhere more sweetly on display than in Dylan's first encounter with Marvel Comics:

"The comic books Mingus Rude treated as a presence delicately alive, some piece of still-beating flesh he and Dylan might be capable of healing by their absolute fixity of attention, by their reverence."

Anyone who has ever hovered over the ink-smeared, tri-colored pages of an old issue of "The Fantastic Four" or "Silver Surfer" understands acutely the devout religiosity with which young boys engage their comics.

Abraham and Barrett must contend with the disruptions in their own lives. Abraham isolates himself in the attic loft working passionately on an abstract film that may never be finished while ashamedly painting garish covers for paperback sci-fi novels to pay the bills.

Barrett lives off of the royalties of several hit songs that he recorded with his Temptations-esque vocal group, The Subtle Distinctions, and occasionally pulls a four-track tape recorder from under his bed to get down snippets of his a cappella crooning.

Both fathers fail their sons.

Abraham is unable to connect with Dylan in any real way. They are more like roommates than family. Like his ex-wife, Abraham also abandons his son, not to a commune, but to the painstaking geometrics of his film.

The fate of Mingus' father is summed up in the liner notes to a CD of his old recordings:

"After winning custody of his son, Barrett Rude Jr. moved to Brooklyn, and there sank gradually into a cocaine-fueled desolation."

In time that drugged desolation is inherited by his son.

Lethem's novel is at its strongest in its early pages. The fledgling friendship that must find a way to negotiate the racial divide is wonderfully, achingly rendered in his electric prose.

Toward the end of the first section, however, it begins to fall apart. Cracks appear in the facade, which very quickly become giant fissures.

Dylan and Mingus are never developed beyond these few fledgling brushstrokes. In comic book parlance, they were merely penciled in; no one bothered to finish them in inks.

Upon these bare skeletons, most particularly in the case of Dylan, who is relating the story, are hung the pop-culture decorations of the times. The reader is inundated with references to books, movies and music. It is here that we lose sight of what Dylan is like and become acquainted with what he likes.

Late in the novel, when Dylan makes a deadly journey to a crackhouse, I'm not sure I understand the reasoning that took him there. But I know exactly which CDs he takes with him on a plane trip.

The authorial strings are showing clear as day.

In this novel, we're left scratching our heads, wondering how what happened came to pass. The choices made are jarring and leadenly written. Where there had been magic and a touching bittersweetness, at the end there is only confusion and disappointment.

Dylan recalls listening to a tape of Brian Eno's "Another Green World" once when Abraham drove him home from college through a snow storm: "The music made an ideal soundtrack to the blizzard's unreality."

While this novel may not fulfill its early promise and the characters are at best blurred forms in a blizzard of cultural reference, at least the soundtrack is pitch-perfect.

Kristofer Collins is a freelance reviewer living in Pittsburgh.

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