In The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem explores the world of Gowanus (aka Boerum Hill) in Brooklyn through the eyes of Dylan Ebdus as he grows from a small boy to a middle-aged man. Throughout Dylan’s life, he has a relationship with Mingus, Arthur, and Robert, kids and then men from his neighborhood. Lethem crafts Dylan as both a neighborhood insider and an outsider and uses this dual status as a means to examine his friends from up close and from afar.
In the beginning of the novel, Dylan is a young white boy in a predominantly ethnic and not yet gentrified neighborhood. He plays with all of the kids from the street and is a part of the neighborhood. This allows Dylan to remark on the way the neighborhood works from the inside. The reader learns about the declining economic fortunes of the neighborhood while Dylan and the kids on the street bounce “spaldeens” off of the abandoned house—about racial tension as Dylan is repeatedly “yoked” of his pocket change by black kids, one of whom is Robert.
When a new kid, Mingus, moves onto the block and befriends Dylan, Dylan is initiated into a new world. Mingus is black and more street smart than Dylan and this friendship helps Dylan see deeper into a world he doesn’t fully understand. He begins to understand the nature of being yoked, although he is never able to avoid it fully throughout his life. Lethem has positioned Dylan so as to have access to Mingus’s world, and by making Mingus’s father a cokehead, Lethem creates Dylan’s first conscious interaction with the world of drugs. Lethem is initiating the reader into this world at the same time.
The structure and interactions Lethem has created for Dylan’s life continue to strike this balance between insider and outsider as Dylan is the only white kid in his school and then ends up helping the new white kid, Arthur, meet Mingus which leads to Arthur becoming more a part of the neighborhood fabric than Dylan.
Then Lethem removes Dylan from the neighborhood by first making him a Fresh Air Fund kid who spends the summer in Vermont and then having him attend Stuyvesant in Manhattan. Suddenly Dylan is no longer teetering on the verge of being a part of the neighborhood; he is removed and is in the position of observer. This allows Lethem to look through Dylan at the kids from Gowanus from the outside even though he still lives there. When Dylan’s new and old worlds cross in a drug buy where Robert appears with a gun, Dylan gains a new perspective on his associates. Although his relationship with Robert was always difficult, the sight of Dylan’s date running in fear after having wet her pants forces him to see how truly scary Robert and Robert’s lifestyle are from the outside. At this point the reader is also forced to reassess the normalcy of Dylan’s life. Structurally, Lethem has been indoctrinating the reader and Dylan into the norms of Gowanus, but at this point he is splashing the reader and Dylan with cold water and forcing them to reassess all of their assumptions.
Dylan continues to separate from his friends and is accepted at a college in Vermont. While working his summer job to pay for school, he runs into Arthur again. Because the story had shifted to Dylan’s school life in Manhattan, the reader is able to view Arthur from a new distance as Dylan does: “Arthur Lomb had gained his height at last….His eyes were red and small and wrinkled like those of some fetal animal, a blind mole rate or cauled calf.” The formerly bookish Arthur who encouraged Dylan to try for Stuyvesant had become a drug fiend who could barely graduate high school and is now collecting the funds to purchase a kilo of cocaine for resale. Not only are Dylan and the reader looking at a shift that happened while Dylan was busy in Manhattan, but we are also looking at a cautionary tale and Dylan’s alter ego. The danger seems more evident and I was relieved Dylan was off to college.
Of course, Dylan is not able to brush off his past as easily as that and when he encounters Mingus, Robert, and Arthur later in life, Mingus and Robert are in prison and Arthur owns several businesses in Boerum Hill, but rather than being a successful entrepreneur, it seems like Arthur is a boy who couldn’t get away from the neighborhood, even when the neighborhood got away from him.
I like the way Jonathan Lethem started these boys out at a young age and brought them together in a time and place when they couldn’t question their fate—they were just living. As I was reading Dylan’s encounters and re-encounters with his cohort, I was thinking about my character Magda and the skaters in Polska, 1994. Magda meets up with the skaters and becomes a part of their group before she even knows what she is doing, but she has a natural in into the group—Olek. I wanted her to sort of fall into the group the way that Dylan fell in with his, although the age is different. Then she pulls away and starts dating Jacek and this is when she can gain perspective on the skaters. After Jacek, she falls into the group again but less because of Olek this time and more because she is forgetting herself. As she steps away from the group and finds herself, I she sees them in a different light as she seeks her truth and her strength. Lethem’s structure of pulling these people apart across time and space and then putting them back together allows for the reinterpretation that is so interesting.
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