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The Fortress of Solitude

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From the prize-winning author of Motherless Brooklyn, a daring, riotous, sweeping novel that spins the tale of two friends and their adventures in late 20th-century America.

This is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. They live in Brooklyn and are friends and neighbours; but since Dylan is white and Mingus is black, their friendship is not simple.

This is the story of 1970s America, a time when the simplest decisions—what music you listen to, whether to speak to the kid in the seat next to you, whether to give up your lunch money—are laden with potential political, social and racial disaster. This is also the story of 1990s America, when nobody cared anymore.

This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives.

528 pages, Paperback

First published September 16, 2003

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About the author

Jonathan Lethem

102 books2,375 followers
Jonathan Allen Lethem (born February 19, 1964) is an American novelist, essayist and short story writer.

His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel that achieved mainstream success. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller.

In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,553 reviews
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,053 followers
February 19, 2017
Fortress of Solitude depicts a world in which there is no such thing as a responsible adult. It might be deemed a coming of age novel except its two central characters, Dylan (white) and Mingus (black), whom we meet when they are both twelve, never grow up even though by the end of the novel they are both in their thirties. Ironically the impoverished Brooklyn neighbourhood where they live does grow up, does become a responsible adult: by the time Dylan is in his thirties, it has become gentrified. Both Dylan and Mingus have been abandoned by their mothers. Both are brought up by maverick fathers on the same street in the 1970s. Dylan’s safety in the largely hostile black neighbourhood is constantly menaced though his friendship with the streetwise Mingus offers solace and even a little protection.

Whether you love or hate this novel will depend largely on whether or not you warm to Lethem’s virtuoso highly detailed prose style. Sometimes he can make you see the familiar in a new and searing light; other times he has a tendency perhaps to over paint his canvases so detail is obscured in overly mannered intricacies of imagery. On the whole I was full of admiration for Lethem’s wordsmithery. He’s among the boldest writer of sentences of living novelists.

Fortress of Solitude is a brilliant account of boyhood and especially its defining moments of triumph and humiliation which Lethem gives equal resonance to. He doesn’t go overboard with the bullying Dylan endures, the daily humiliation of being “yoked”. It’s also a deft and incredibly sensitive observation of black/white relations in 1970s New York. Mingus especially is a great character and there’s something genuinely moving and ultimately heartbreaking about the friendship Dylan and Mingus share. It’s also a brilliant depiction of urban New York in the 1970 and 80s, especially with regards to the roles played by graffiti and music.

The playful subplot of this novel is a magical ring that enables its wearer to become a superhero. Aeroman. Comics, emblematic of fantasy in general, play a major role in the formation of all the young boys. In the scenes where the ring plays a part Lethem challenges your ability to sustain disbelief to the maximum because otherwise this is a work of gritty realism and probing psychology.

Music is another theme. And especially soul music because this is a novel about soul, the haunted soul unable to quite find its native ground in the world. (Mingus’ father apparently is modelled on Marvin Gaye.)

It’s a much more ambitious novel than Motherless Brooklyn and because of its sprawling nature not, for me, as successful but still a brilliant achievement though it should also be said that the first two thirds is a great deal more engaging and moving than the last third.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 18 books1,279 followers
November 4, 2009
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

Soon after opening CCLaP in the summer of 2007, one of the first books I had a chance to review was what at the time was Jonathan Lethem's latest, You Don't Love Me Yet; and as long-time readers remember, I found that book to be a nearly unreadable pile of horsesh-t, so bad in fact that it served as the inaugural entry of my old "Too Awful to Finish" essay series, a series I eventually shut down again because of it being just too damn mean. And that's when I started hearing from all of Lethem's fans, telling me that I should give this grad-student panty-moistener another chance, that I had simply picked the wrong book of his to start out with. "Read The Fortress of Solitude instead!" all these academes argued. "That's the good one! You'll like that! That's the one that got all the award nominations! You'll like that one!"

So this week I finally did, yet another older title I'm getting caught up with through new "Netflix for books" service BookSwim.com, which I'm in the middle of a courtesy two-month membership with, in exchange for doing a write-up about my experience here in mid-December. And it was at this point (in fact, about 50 pages in, the point when I angrily gave up on this book) that I realized that a little theory I've had about the arts for some time now seems to be coming more and more true with every new book I read, with every year I continue being a book critic: namely, academes don't know what the f-ck they're talking about, and in the process are completely wrecking the entire literary industry we all used to know and love. I mean, how else to explain these people's baffling love for this unmitigated piece of garbage, which much like Augusten Burroughs presents a ridiculously overwritten, pop-culture-laced memoir of 1970s Gen-X childhood, featuring excruciatingly precious slang-filled magic-realism dialogue and with insanely too much gravitas assigned to such plotless meanderings as kids watching bad television and eavesdropping on their intellectual parents' insultingly banal conversations?

And then I realized -- oh, right, of course, this is an early-2000s novel by a white academe about how much white people suck (specifically, the story of the "re-whitening" of Brooklyn starting in the late '70s, after the New York borough turning into an ethnic slum following World War Two, a process called "gentrification" that has by 2009 turned nearly the entire city into a Caucasian hipster fantasyland); and man, if there's one thing that's become an undeniable truism by now, it's that back in the '90s and early '00s, academes tended to automatically fall in love with preciously overwritten screeds by self-loathing white males about the horrors of their fellow Caucasians, with the same kind of burning passion that, say, dogs love licking their own f-cking balls.

F-CK YOU, SELF-LOATHING GRAD STUDENTS! Stop ruining the entire subject of literature for the rest of us by falsely trumpeting these unreadable pieces of horsesh-t by such preciously twee suck-ass fellow self-loathing academes! J-sus F-cking Chr-st, no godd-mn wonder that the general public has stopped reading novels anymore, when you all keep running around handing out awards to execrable f-cking turds like this! Please, PLEASE, for the love of GOD, no more worshipping of overwritten plotless Gen-X pop-culture-obsessed '70s-memoir drivel! PLEASE! STOP! I'M F-CKING BEGGING YOU! STOP! STOP! STOP!

Out of 10: 0.0
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,024 reviews4,074 followers
November 15, 2021
As a rule, I veer far from anything with “coming-of-age” smells, so falling into this near 600-page monster in which Lethem autofictionalises his childhood in painstaking detail was something of an act of readerly carelessness, where this reader almost howled at the umpteenth use of ‘spaldeen’ and ‘ailanthus’, two words that needed executing very early on in the novel. Having waded through the 300-page shrine at the temple of Onanostalgia, God of Masturbatory Reminiscence, the second half of the novel is a far more stimulating foray into Lethemian prose, limning the very interesting themes of race and class that wibble around in the first half, making the audaciously bold part where Lethem elevates his boring childhood into L-I-T-E-R-A-T-U-R-E almost worth the week-long commitment. Almost.
Profile Image for Javier.
217 reviews128 followers
June 12, 2021

Existen muy pocas cosas que le gusten a todo el mundo. De hecho, a medida que escribo estas líneas voy descartando la mayoría de las que tenía pensadas. Pero se me ocurre al menos una en la que seguramente casi todo el mundo estaría de acuerdo: las listas. Ya sé que parece una tontería, pero, aunque a algunos no les guste redactarlas personalmente, desde los Diez Mandamientos hasta los Cuarenta Principales, todo lo organizamos en listas. A fin de cuentas, la vida es como el mapa de un misterioso territorio a medio explorar y nosotros, para no perdernos irremisiblemente, nos esforzamos en ordenar el caos y llenar los espacios vacíos colocando marcas por todas partes: nuestras listas, nuestras fechas que recordar, nuestras coordenadas.
Todo esto viene a cuento porque La Fortaleza de la Soledad es un libro que ilustra a la perfección esa idea de la vida como un caos que necesitamos ordenar. Lethem es un narrador superlativo. Además, en sus novelas, en las que el caos es el sustrato del que nacen las historias, es capaz como nadie de crear territorios tan reales como míticos; es un geógrafo, un cartógrafo que traza el mapa —en este caso de Brooklyn— con total precisión; cada esquina, cada parque, cada tienda… y darles sentido. Y para que no nos extraviemos en ese maremágnum de calles Lethem anota su plano con unas marcas de orientación muy especiales: canciones, una lista de cientos de canciones, desde el funk al hip-hop, desde el soul al punk, que dan sentido espacial y temporal a la narración.

Comienzan los años setenta y la tensión racial se respira en el aire en Brooklyn. La vida no es fácil para nadie, y mucho menos para Dylan, el único chico blanco de la calle Dean. Si no fuera por su facilidad para pasar desapercibido y por la protección de Mingus, un líder al que todos respetan, estaría perdido. Ambos tienen mucho en común ―graffitis, comics de superhéroes, drogas, partidos de béisbol en las calles y música Funky―, pero Dylan es un soñador, tímido y débil, mientras que Mingus, sencillamente, tiene ojos en la cara y sabe cosas que destruirán a su amigo el día que las descubra.
En realidad, no es tan complicado; la calle tiene sus propias reglas y mientras las sigas no te pasará nada. Al menos, nada irreparable. Aquí cualquier detalle sin importancia aparente es trascendental: las canciones que escuchas o las deportivas que calzas son señas de identidad tan importantes como el color de la piel o la banda a la que perteneces y pueden marcar la diferencia entre que te respeten o te vapuleen.
Dylan aprende pronto cómo sobrevivir en el barrio, pero necesita huir. Los años ochenta traerán nuevos horizontes, nuevas oportunidades; un instituto lejos de la calle Dean implica nuevos compañeros, pero también nuevas canciones ―llegan el punk, la new wave―, nuevo aspecto, nuevas drogas… Quién sabe si en un futuro la universidad será la puerta de salida definitiva del gueto.
Pero con las oportunidades llegan las incertidumbres. A principios de los noventa todo lo que parecía tan importante ha dejado de serlo, el crack y la delincuencia han causado estragos en el barrio y uno ya no sabe a dónde pertenece, qué música debe oír o cómo debe vestirse. ¿Dónde están los tags con los que firmaron hasta el último rincón de cada pared, de cada cabina, de cada vagón de metro? ¿A dónde han volado los superhéroes? Se diría que los personajes de Lethem eran más felices en la atmósfera asfixiante y violenta del gueto (incluso en la cárcel, aquellos que terminan dando con sus huesos en ella), donde las reglas están claras, que viviendo sus vidas en libertad. Parece que la vida se escribe con más fluidez en papel pautado.
Lentamente, canción a canción, Lethem va tejiendo el inmenso tapiz de La Fortaleza de la Soledad con la historia de Dylan, que busca su lugar sin encontrarlo ―un chico blanco que trata de huir de un Brooklyn de negros y latinos para descubrir que se ha convertido en un adolescente de barrio negro en un mundo de blancos―; la historia de Mingus, aparentemente más predecible pero en realidad más compleja y sorprendente; la del padre de Dylan, Abraham, un pintor entregado a una obra interminable; la de Junior, padre de Mingus, una estrella caída del firmamento soul; o la de Robert Woolfolk, el matón del barrio. Quizá los héroes sean muy distintos de cómo los hemos imaginado siempre.
La Fortaleza de la Soledad es un intenso y sincero relato de perdedores que logran mantenerse a flote en la tormenta y de ganadores que se ahogan. Es sobre todo una novela acerca de la propia identidad, acerca de los materiales que empleamos para construirla —¿cuántos discos, películas y libros son necesarios para inventarnos a nosotros mismos?― y de los terrenos sobre los que la cimentamos. Es una novela sobre esa Fortaleza de la Soledad (que es el nombre de la guarida de Superman) que edificamos a nuestro alrededor para escondernos en ella durante la infancia. ¿Qué queda de todo eso en la edad adulta? ¿Cargaremos siempre sobre nuestras espaldas con las ruinas de ese reducto que creíamos inexpugnable?
―Escucha lo que dices, Dylan. ¿Qué te pasó? Tu infancia se ha convertido en un santuario privilegiado en el que vives todo el tiempo en lugar de estar conmigo. ¿Piensas que no lo sé?
―A mí no me pasó nada.
―Vale ―dijo con gran carga de sarcasmo―. Entonces, ¿por qué estás tan obsesionado con tu infancia?
―Mi infancia… ―dije con cautela eligiendo cada palabra―. La infancia es la única época de mi vida… hum… no abrumada por la infancia.

El resultado es una gran novela americana, una de esas novelas totales que tanto le gusta escribir a Lethem, en la que Brooklyn se convierte en un universo completo, con sus barrios como continentes, sus calles como ríos y mares, con sus tribus y sus naciones, incluso con sus propias leyes físicas. Pero después de crear un mundo en todo su detalle, Lethem coloca en él un elemento discordante ―como el cartógrafo fantasioso que después de trazar con precisión costas y montañas dibujaba en el centro del océano un inverosímil monstruo marino―, que en principio podría pasar por una broma del autor, pero que finalmente da la clave de la novela: un objeto fantástico ofrece a los protagonistas la posibilidad de cambiar por completo sus vidas, aunque están demasiado ocupados viviéndolas como para sacarle partido.
Este impresionante ejercicio de creatividad y fuerza narrativa es, en definitiva, un réquiem por la infancia, por la inocencia, por los amigos que equivocaron el camino y se perdieron y también por aquéllos que siguieron con paso seguro por la ruta correcta sólo para encontrar que al final les esperaba lo mismo que creyeron abandonar en el punto de salida. En sus páginas se combinan nostalgia y desencanto en la misma medida en que lo hacen en nuestros propios recuerdos.
Es una de esas novelas que uno quisiera que fuesen interminables, que a pesar de sus más de seiscientas páginas en edición de bolsillo se termina con pena, como esa infancia que queríamos apurar a toda prisa, una página tras otra, mientras duró y que después supo a demasiado poco.
Pero las historias que te contabas ―que fingías recordar como si hubieran pasado todas las tardes de un verano infinito― eran en realidad un puñado de días distorsionados hasta convertirlos en leyenda (…). ¿Cuántas veces, en realidad, habías abierto la boca de riego? ¿Cuántas llegaste a atravesar la ventanilla de un coche con un chorro de agua? ¿Dos veces, a lo sumo? Al final, el verano sólo duraba un par de tardes.

Pero si el pasado es duro y sórdido y el futuro está lleno de incertidumbre y amenazas, al menos siempre nos queda la posibilidad de vivir el presente con pasión, sin renunciar a los sueños por imposibles que sean. No faltarán entonces satisfacciones que compensen los malos momentos. Satisfacciones a veces debidas a acontecimientos tan insignificantes como compartir una lista de libros que nos han dejado huella. O de canciones.


Esa es la historia. Pero lo importante es la historia cantada. La música de esta recopilación cuenta una historia ―sobre belleza, inspiración y dolor― a cargo de voces salidas del gueto y de los suburbios, las iglesias y el patio de los colegios.

La cita anterior forma parte de la presentación de una supuesta antología de canciones de Barrett Rude Junior, padre de Mingus y cantante de northern soul. Junior es un personaje de ficción y sus canciones, obviamente, no existen, pero en La Fortaleza de la Soledad se nombran cientos de títulos reales. Esta lista de reproducción contiene todas las canciones mencionadas en el libro que he podido encontrar. A veces sólo se nombra un álbum o un artista; en esos casos, me he tomado la libertad de elegir una o varias canciones siguiendo mi criterio.
En la lista hay mucho funk, que es lo que escuchaban Dylan y Mingus durante su infancia en Brooklyn, pero también se puede encontrar soul, rhythm n’blues y doo-wop de artistas coetáneos de Junior o folk de los discos de la madre de Dylan. Con el tiempo Dylan se aficionará al punk y a la new wave y entonces Devo, Brian Eno y los Talking Heads se reclamarán su sitio en la lista. Hacia el final la selección se vuelve mucho más heterogénea: pop, jazz, disco o incluso algún tema country. En todo caso, es la banda sonora de la novela.
Las voces quizá te empujen a cantar al unísono o a bailar. Quizá te sirvan de inspiración para una posible seducción o para la introspección o, simplemente, te animen a ver menos la tele. Sin embargo, las voces de Barrett Rude Junior y los Subtle Distinctions no llevan a ninguna parte, a no ser que te transporten a tu barrio. A la calle en la que vives. A las cosas que dejaste atrás.

Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
861 reviews2,190 followers
February 26, 2021

About the Stars

This novel and review had me perplexed.

I regard myself as a Lethem fan, basically because I loved "As She Climbed Across the Table" so much.

However, both on my first pre-GR reading (in 2007) and my recent re-reading of this novel, I was relatively disappointed. This time, I decided to adhere to my original three-star rating, although this is by no means a recommendation that other readers not read the novel.

The star rating perplexed me for two reasons. One is that I gave "Motherless Brooklyn" five stars, and if pressed, I doubt whether I'd conclude that it was two stars better than "The Fortress of Solitude".

Secondly, I also rated Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" (a very similar novel in style and content) five stars, and I don't feel totally comfortable rating them so divergently.

Yet, I just can't bring myself to raise the rating by either one or two stars. So despite my discomfort, it will remain at three stars.

Sixties to Nineties Brooklyn

Like "Telegraph Avenue", "The Fortress of Solitude" examines a neighbourhood (in this case, Brooklyn, which I haven't lived in or visited) in the context of music and popular culture. The two main protagonists are Dylan Ebdus (a Jewish music writer) and Mingus Rude (a black graffiti artist).

The novel starts when they are in primary school in the 1960's, and ends in the late nineties, when Dylan is working as a journalist, screenplay writer, and free-lance writer of liner notes, and Mingus is serving a prison sentence for the accidental death by gunshot of his grandfather.

Sentimental Realism

Stylistically, the novel was primarily (say 90%) sentimental realism. The rest alludes to Marvel and DC Comics and superheroes, equally sentimentally, but it embraces fantasy or an urban magic realism, which enables Dylan to fly like Superman. When flying, he thinks of himself as Aeroman. Later, he exchanges his superpower for the power of invisibility, whenever he wears his magic ring. I'm not sure that I really understood or appreciated the significance of flying and invisibility for a novel that is otherwise realistic.

Of the 90%, roughly two-thirds (i.e., 60%) describes life in Brooklyn up to the point when Dylan goes to art college in Vermont, and Mingus goes to prison. The remaining third (30%) describes Dylan's college life in both Vermont and Berkeley, and Mingus' life in prison, and when they meet up again in their mid-30's.

Music with Occasional Drugs

Brooklyn life is portrayed in loving detail, with an emphasis on music, super heroes, graffiti, drugs and street games. College life witnesses the generational changes in music styles that saw punk, new wave, disco, rap, hip hop, soul and R&B dominate the seventies to the nineties.

Subtle Distinctions

We see little of the boys' mothers. The boys are described as motherless children. The fathers have a greater role, although they're not particularly parental. Dylan admires Mingus' father, Barrett Rude Junior, who was a well-regarded R&B singer from the early sixties to the mid seventies (his group was called the Subtle Distinctions). The middle chapter of the book consists of the liner notes Dylan wrote for a CD box set of his music released by a re-issue label called Remnant.

"Mattering for a While"

Music (and writing about it) is the essence of Dylan's life. Indeed, post-comic phase, it's possible that music constitutes "the Fortress of Solitude" of the title (which is a Superman reference).

As Dylan writes of Barrett Rude, you could almost say of Dylan:

"Barrett Rude had in the Distinctions found the context within which he could tell the story he had to tell, a place to do the one thing a human being can hope to do - matter for a while."

"Brother, It Sings If You Listen"

Overall, I think I appreciated "The Fortress of Solitude" more than many (but not all - Brooklynite?) other readers, because of my love of music. As Lethem writes:

"Brother, it sings if you listen."

From my perspective (on the ground), the novel sang least when Dylan was flying or invisible.

"Those Middle Spaces of the Demimonde"

The music world was a middle space that allowed black and white, parent and child, East and West Coast, Motown and Stax to come together:

"We all pined for those middle spaces, those summer hours when Josephine Baker lay waste to Paris, when 'Bothered Blue' peaked on the charts, when a teenaged Elvis, still dreaming of his own first session, sat in the Sun Studios watching the Prisonaires, when a top-to-bottom burner blazed through a subway station, renovating the world for an instant, when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord from a streetlamp, when juice just flowed...

"We were in a middle space then, in a cone of white, father and son moving forward at a certain speed. Side by side, not truly quiet but quiescent, two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream."

This middle space, this human dream is a "bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream," a Watermelon Sugar like the one celebrated (if not invented) by Richard Brautigan (to which Dylan's mother, Rachel, had once retreated from Brooklyn).


Skully board


Poem Brought to You by the Letter "S"

After school, we'd stroll
Through the schoolyard
To the subway station,
Ascending the stairs
On the other side
To the streets outside,
Skipping along the sidewalks,
Until we arrived
At our home stoops,
Where, still excited, we'd sit,
Watching, or playing skully,
Stoop ball or some street game
With our spaldeens
On a square of slate
Chalked on the sidewalk,
All the time fantasising
About superheroes and soul singers
With their secret powers,
Marvel, DC, Subtle Distinctions,
Comics, science fiction, Star Wars,
Sun Studios, Elvis, Stax,
Tagged streetwise on every surface,
Hoping we could escape
The sly gentrification
Of Dean Street, Brooklyn,
Though of course we never would.

Profile Image for Patrick Sprunger.
120 reviews27 followers
April 7, 2010
I half expected to find that Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors that readers either love or hate, but was surprised by how mad the people who hate him are. Personally, I fall into the former camp - those who love Mr. Lethem's work. Let me explain why.

Jonathan Lethem creates the most absurd scenarios possible and then crafts ingenious narratives around them. To describe a book like Fortress of Solitude to someone not already familiar with Mr. Lethem's work requires a lot of qualification. To do so with some of his other stories, his short stories in particular, can be almost embarrassing... There's this white kid and black kid and they come across a homeless man with a magic ring. They get the ring and use it to blaze graffiti on tall buildings in an urban turf rite. Bootsy Collins stops by to chat on occasion... It sounds hideously stupid.

But it's not. I imagine Mr. Lethem's process is this: 1. Come up with something absolutely bonkers, like magic rings (Fortress of Solitude, this book) or a former child star colluding with a mutant crustacean to take over the world (a different Lethem story, "Interview with the Crab") or exo-suits that give normal people the physical attributes of great NBA players of yesteryear ("Vanilla Dunk"). 2. Make it interesting. I imagine guiding characters like Dylan Ebdus, Mingus Rude, and Aaron X. Doily through a meaningful narrative is a tremendous challenge. I imagine a man who's up to such a challenge derives a great deal of satisfaction from it.

It's like being the world's greatest dungeon master: instant pariah status. What I find strange, though, is that Jonathan Lethem is essentially a contemporary of Neil Gaiman. And while folks love Mr. Gaiman because of his command of mythology, fascination with nightmare states, and melodious English accent, they seem to hate Jonathan Lethem. We live in a time where otherwise healthy adults devour young adult fiction. You'd think Jonathan Lethem's work would be right up the mainstream's alley. Only it would be better, because it's not for kids.
Profile Image for Mattia Ravasi.
Author 5 books3,511 followers
October 21, 2016
Video-review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F9Gf...

An epic tale of gentrification and crushed hopes, The Fortress of Solitude is one of the densest books I've ever read, each page packed with lives and dreams and misery. It's depressing as fuck and crazy on so many levels, but for the sheer glow of its ambitiousness, it's a pleasure to read for anyone who's passionate about American literature and culture.
Profile Image for Aprile.
123 reviews79 followers
March 7, 2018
Ognuno è ignorante a modo proprio
Lethem mi ha colpito in pieno viso, come se mi avesse lanciato una spaldeen e io non fossi stata pronta a riceverla. Sono ammutolita, direi. Raramente mi sono sentita così ignorante leggendo un libro, al punto da chiedermi frequentemente "ma io dov'ero?" Ad esempio, non sapevo che la Fortezza della Solitudine fosse il rifugio segreto di Superman, tanto per cominciare dal titolo... Il mio orecchio distratto, e tanto meno l'occhio, non è stato mai colpito dal fatto che la Marvel fosse la casa editrice storica dell'Uomo Ragno, di X-Men, dei Fantastici Quattro, di Hulk tanto per citarne qualcuno, ad esempio... D'altronde non li ho neanche mai letti, io mi limitavo a Topolino, Tarzan e Alan Ford... Anche la succitata spaldeen non faceva parte del mio immaginario collettivo, ad esempio... Per non parlare poi di quella fantastica progressione musicale dagli anni '70 ai '90... mai consultato YouTube così frequentemente leggendo un libro... e così ancora potrei elencarne. Lethem è stato capace, Yo, motherfucker, di portarmi là, a Brooklyn, sulle scalinate d'ingresso alle abitazioni, luogo di ritrovo di quei pre-adolescenti già uomini e donne, neri, con le loro prevaricazioni ma anche i loro passatempi, e poi con le droghe, quelle forti, con la scuola che non insegnava niente come fosse rassegnata al fatto che nulla poteva essere cambiato. E i loro odi e le loro amicizie, e la ghettizzazione del bianco in un ghetto di neri. Dylan - D-man, è vittima, addirittura pioniere della gentrification, di quella riqualificazione immaginata dalla madre hippie la quale, però, da hippie non è riuscita a sobbarcarsi delle responsabilità. E D-man rimane nelle mani del padre, artista serio ma - essendo artista - svagato che lo accompagna molto marginalmente nella sua crescita. E sono anni di paure, di sottomissioni, di furti di un dollaro subiti quotidianamente, di sogni di riscatto, di colpi di spaldeen ben piazzati o ben ricevuti, di anni vissuti - si dice più in là - sotto la protezione di quartiere di Mingus. Poi c'è l'abbandono, poi il ritorno, poi la vendetta - o forse è solo sogno - poi finalmente indagini, anche se fortuite, sulla madre, assenza dominante in tutta la vicenda. Bellissimo, bellissimo quadro di una infanzia, che va oltre la questione se l'infanzia sia stata più o meno bella.
Profile Image for Colin Miller.
Author 3 books28 followers
June 12, 2008
Storytelling has changed.

It used to be that stories unfolded slowly, sometimes even lethargically, until rising to the climactic finish. Think about the classics you like—most likely: slow start, strong finish. These days, stories begin at a rapid pace, but seem to lose momentum by the end. When I think about recent popular titles, even ones I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, this disappointment is usually present. Maybe it’s the immediacy of the modern-day culture, but it’s rare to find an ending up to the neo-pace set by the initial chapters/hour (in movieland terms). Unfortunately, Jonathan Letham’s The Fortress of Solitude is no different.

The story centers around Dylan Edbus, a young white boy sent to public school in a nearly all-black neighborhood in 1970’s Brooklyn, New York. Attacks and abuse run high, but Dylan forges a friendship with his neighbor, Mingus Rude. Despite their differences in family (Dylan from white hippies, Mingus from a cocaine-addicted, formerly popular black singer), they soon share disappointments in that area. Letham paints a strong picture of the charm and volatility of the Dean Street neighborhood. His social commentary on race relations, comic books, music and decades of life in Brooklyn are strong and rarely heavy-handed.

Then there’s that slow descent from the great first part of the book, the point where the flaws of modern storytelling hit and bleed out the vein of what could have been one of the great books of the decade. It’s a shame, because the first part is amazing. Not casual amazing, but actually amazing in its craft and prose, four stars and reaching higher. Then the rest of the book comes with a shift in time, perspective and quality. Even though the story finishes fantastical and strong (with one of the rare successful surrealistic uses of what could be superhero powers), the drop from the peak set by the first part of the book leaves the reader in too low of a valley to ignore. Three stars.
251 reviews7 followers
June 8, 2009
What a shit storm. This is one of the more plodding books I have engaged in my time as a reader. It ranks up there with one of the only other books I have abandoned, Updike's Rabbit, Run. Updike and Lethem also hold the distinction of being some of the worst writers of prose I have encountered. My god, I hate the way they write.

Not recommended.
Profile Image for lorinbocol.
261 reviews307 followers
July 31, 2017
fanculo jonathan lethem. mi hai tirato una spaldeen imprendibile e mi hai definitivamente fregato con quelle sciagurate 100 pagine finali. sono qui col tuo libro tra le mani, spiegazzato lui e ammaccata io. gli angoli rovinati come la morsa dietro lo sterno, dove hai colpito forte con l'ultimo lancio. pensare che nei giorni scorsi (arrivata al famoso calo di tono su cui peraltro ero stata allertata: facendo sterile ragioneria potrei dire a 1/3, o forse 2/5 dalla fine o giù di lì) ho perfino ipotizzato che la quinta stella non l'avrei accesa. come diavolo ho fatto, non lo so. del resto eri partito benissimo, con una duecentina di pagine filate a farmi ripetere: ecco cosa verrebbe fuori se mark twain tornasse per riscrivere un huckleberry finn più amaro e con un doping conclamato di fumetti marvel. con un film alla spike lee nella testa (uno brooklyniano pesante tipo fai la cosa giusta) e un bagno di cultura pop che crea sostrato comune con ogni infanzia, non importa se tirata su a migliaia di chilometri e situazioni di distanza. e amen se non ero troppo sul pezzo circa il copioso fraseggio di musica '70 e '80. mi bastava sentire fino in fondo cosa significasse una canzone come «play that funky music (white boy)» dei wild cherry per dylan vorrei-la-pelle-nera ebdus. il ragazzino che cresce nella brooklyn degli anni settanta subendo un razzismo al negativo, ma stringendo anche quello che resterà a dispetto di tutto il legame più vero della sua vita. sto facendo casino, me ne rendo conto. ma forse è più giusto così, perché il vago senso di sopraffazione è lo stesso che ho avuto in background durante lunghi tratti della lettura. col dubbio che, da un momento all'altro, per gestire tutte quelle emozioni mi sarebbe servito un manuale di assemblaggio [e io non leggo mai le istruzioni di alcunché]. e invece no. mentre mi chiedevo quale versione di kryptonite narrativa avrei trovato nella stanza più interna della fortezza (il titolo del romanzo è citazione da superman, sì), che mi avrebbe steso o ferito gravemente, tutto ha iniziato a incastrarsi da sé. è come se anche lethem al settimo giorno si fosse riposato. sei lì che leggi e scopri di avere tra le mani una maionese che temevi stesse per impazzire e invece eccola riuscire a meraviglia. o un lillången dell'ikea (mobile base per lavabo con due ante, sifone e ripiano regolabile inclusi) che si monta da solo mentre sei pronto a sacramentare sulla brugola e i sostegni angolari. lethem si prende la briga di mettere tutto al posto giusto, anche se come accade per i grandi romanzi la perfezione non è affar suo. e allora è vero che il libro ha talune lungaggini che mi hanno tentato con la famosa diagonalità, ma puntualmente ecco nuovi squarci in cui capisci che l'unica cosa che vuoi è lasciarti trasportare. abbandonarti a un romanzo che parla dell'amicizia, del rapporto coi genitori o con la loro assenza, delle circostanze che ci fanno diventare quello che siamo [e non siamo mai davvero le belle persone che il pubblico pagante si aspettava che] e di come la fantasia può dare l'illusione di essere altrove o altrimenti, ma nello stesso tempo aiutarti a restare dove sei. e fa male e fa bene, allora, avere conferma che più un'infanzia è dura più una parte di noi tornerà sempre lì. la fidanzata di dylan glielo rinfaccia più o meno con queste parole, non ho preso nota della frase ma il succo c'è. come c'è una fortezza della solitudine in cui si prova a regolare dei conti, con se stessi prima che con la vita. ma non ci si riesce quasi mai, lethem lo sa e ce lo dice in chiarezza. e insomma c'è tanta di quella roba in questo romanzo che vale il prezzo di almeno un altro biglietto. e non mi riferisco né al numero delle pagine né ai riferimenti reali di cui quel furbastro di un hipster infittisce le bislacche partogenesi della sua fantasia. anzi, l'unico appunto che muovo forse a lethem è un eccesso di riferimenti nella ricostruzione ambientale (namedropping nostalgico dei consumi culturali d'epoca?) che è anche il motivo per cui penso sia uno strafare tener google a portata di dito mentre si legge. credo semmai che il modo migliore di godersi questo romanzo immenso sia non incarognirsi sui dettagli e volare più in alto. remove before flight. perché lethem è ufficialmente Uno Che Sa Tirare Una Spaldeen Di Sguincio.
Profile Image for Three.
250 reviews47 followers
August 18, 2017
ma povero Franzen.........

tutto solo nella stanzetta senza telefono né internet per scrivere il grande romanzo americano, poi arriva un altro e scrive questo libro qua
Profile Image for Srdjan.
43 reviews15 followers
August 31, 2018
Ako postoji neko pravilo poluautobiografske književnosti, onda ono piscu nalaže da ostane vjeran atmosferi i osjećanjima koje pamti iz vremena o kome piše, a događaje i likove može po želji da dodaje, izostavlja i na razne načine mijenja. Tako postupajući, Džonatan Letem piše o izazovima odrastanja u razorenoj porodici, u zapuštenom, crnačko-portorikanskom Bruklinu koji će tek nekoliko decenija kasnije postati hipsterski Diznilend. Stripovi, muzika, nasilje, seks i droga su očekivane stanice na putu koji od djetinjstva vodi preko dječaštva do mladosti, ali glavni motiv knjige je prijateljstvo piščevog alter ega Dilana sa Mingusom, crnim dječakom iz komšiluka sa sličnom, a opet sasvim različitom životnom pričom. Njihove sudbine, odnos i povezanost tajnom jednog čarobnog prstena u knjizi pratimo od ranih sedamdesetih do devedeset i neke.

Knjiga je strukturalno, hronološki, pa i stilski, podijeljena na dva dijela, pri čemu se prvi, nešto duži, i meni mnogo draži, završava s krajem srednje škole i odlaskom Dilana na fakultet izvan Njujorka. Mislim da prednost koju dajem ovom dijelu romana nema veze samo s tim da su njujorške sedamdesete, sa svojim pankom, ranim hip-hopom i grafitima po podzemnoj željeznici, egzotičnije i zanimljivije od osamdesetih i devedesetih u Vermontu i Kaliforniji. Rekao bih da je Letem prvu polovinu knjige pisao sa mnogo više emocije, sa mnogo više srca. Uostalom, na jednom mjestu u knjizi Dilan kaže da je njegovo djetinjstvo jedini dio života u kome nije bio zaokupljen djetinjstvom. I to se u pisanju vidi. Očito, za Džonatana Letema formativne godine su one do osamnaeste.

Drugi dio knjige zapravo je nepotrebno produžen epilog. Umjesto da fokus stavi na rješavanje teško razumljivog simbola čarobnog prstena i snažan zaključak, Letem kompromituje svoju inače vrhunsku prozu razvlačeći priču u nekoliko pravaca, na sporedne likove i marginalne događaje, i dajući nepotrebna objašnjenja pomalo potcjenjuje čitaoca. Ipak, bez obzira na ove neubjedljive momente, The Fortress of Solitude je odličan roman i zajedno sa prošle godine pročitanim Motherless Brooklyn (manje ambicioznim, ali zato jezgrovitijim, možda i inteligentnije napisanim), Letema čini jednim od najzanimljivijih američkih pisaca na koje sam naišao u posljednjih par godina.
Profile Image for Marcos Teach.
928 reviews13 followers
April 7, 2023
Updated 2022 review:

Read 2016, 2017, 2019, 2022

The Fortress of Solitude is one of these novels that you realize from the first page is an epic tale of unrequited love between two motherless friends: Dylan and Mingus. Dylan is white and Mingus is biracial and African American. Their story reinvents the coming of age story through music, gentrification, jazz, and queer love.

The first third of the novel: Dylan and Mingus’ friendship, love of music, being best friends in the throbbing beat in areas of Brooklyn during the 1970s is an unsentimental story of two boys whose friendship seems to transcend race. Downtown Brooklyn is on its way to gentrification, "this zone's on their official map, never displayed to the public, of Hopeless" (Lethem 135).

Dylan’s mother Rachel abandons him and his father Abraham, an artist. Also abandoned by his mother, Mingus lives with father, a former music legend named Barrett Rude Jr, in a ramshackle brownstone. Dylan and Mingus fight off gangs, masturbate, discover comic books, and even imagine their lives as one. They discover the magical Aaron X Doily- and through the magic ring, Mingus learns to fly, teams with neighborhood bully Robert Woolfolk, and manipulates Arthur Lomb.

Suddenly, Mingus is charged with shooting his father to death and is addicted to cocaine; and Dylan ends up a writer writing music liner notes out in Berkeley, California. Dylan spends aimless years trying to figure out his existential crisis until he thinks saving Mingus is the key to his own salvation. Mr. Lethem does not allow Dylan to have redemption; rather, he becomes even more hollow and sad at the novel's unforgettable finale, "I felt the distance between Dean Street and my Berkeley life as an unbridgeable gulf" (Lethem 442).

Through the loudness that generates through the narrative that illustrates the 1970s and 1980s, the center of the novel is a big broken heart that beats with a furious sadness where everyone is stagnant and lonely as hell: Dylan wants to be loved and connect, with unrequited love for Mingus, "Mingus greets Dylan with a hug...Dylan told himself he'd have returned the hug if he and Mingus were alone...so in defensiveness, he shrugged Mingus off, was all business" (Lethem 278).

Mingus shoots his grandfather, an incarcerated preacher, to protect his father, Barrett Jr and of course, Dylan, in an act of love that will reverberate with unbearable consequences, "he felt the weight of their expectations...Pops and Dillinger were dreamers, it made them shy, weak. He wished to protect them from knowledge that would crush them...stuff Mingus knew just because his eyes were wide open" (Lethem 460). Mingus and Robert Woolfolk become the symbols of how they are black men who becomes tragic figures and statistics of an unforgiving system of injustice because of racial hatred.

Barrett Rude Jr and Abraham as fathers unable to connect with their sons in healthy and nurturing ways because of their own inability to penetrate their own fortress of sadness. Lethem weaves a magical spell using music of the 1970s with artists such as The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Wild Cherry (in a hilarious section of the book that playfully makes fun of Dylan and cultural appropriation); Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye (Mingus shooting his grandfather is an allusion to this); to Ray Charles, Little Jimmy Scott, REM, Eddie Vedder, Mavis Staples, The Clash, and Nina Simone round out some of the musicians that drive the story from the 1970s to early 2000s.

Lethem also captures Brooklyn as an all encompassing, magical land, mythical with its neighborhoods that haunt the reader with shifting images and language, see Chapter 9, "here, Fourth Avenue's a wide trench of light industrial ruin...liquor stores, bodegas...Court Street an old Italian preserve, the south of Carroll hushed in the grip of Mafia whispers... forced with baseball bats and slashed tires, down to the looming, curling Brooklyn Queens Expressway forms a steel curtain severing what used to be Red Hook. South, the Gowanus Canal is a wasteland of rubber" (Lethem 134-37).

Lethem's most haunting sentence is how black men are treated in America is the beating, furious question that still looms today, "What age is a black boy when he learns he's scary?" (Lethem 490).

The love that Dylan and Mingus share is what makes this novel ultimately a tragic love story, for every opportunity they might get to connect- it's always missed and heartbreaking.
Profile Image for Tripp.
371 reviews25 followers
September 28, 2013
Now that I've read this book, I share Lethem's amazement that James Wood reviewed it without mentioning the magic ring. Though the ring vanishes for long stretches of time, it is pivotal at several junctures, especially during the final scene between protagonist Dylan Ebdus, whose story of growing up white in non-white Brooklyn during the '70s this is, and his best friend, Mingus Rude, son of a famous soul singer, tagger, and, eventually, claimed by crack and consigned to the prison system. This intentional oversight caused a minor dust-up between the two back in the early Noughties.

Lethem writes a great sentence, that much seems clear to me. Some of the Goodreads comments excoriating him--one even classes him with Updike, who, whatever his faults via-a-visit his female characters, had one of the great styles of the 20th-century, as an example of genuinely awful writing--leave me puzzled. When Dylan's archenemy, Robert Woolfolk, intimidates him into a "loan" of his bicycle, Dylan sees a neighbor, a grown-up, down the street. Possibly a savior? Lethem writes it like this:

Old Ramirez stood in front of his store and sipped a Manhattan Special and squinted at them from under his fisherman's hat. He was beyond appeal, watching them like television.

Such perfect use of simile here: not only can Dylan expect no help from neighbors whom he can clearly see, his impending humiliation will also function as entertainment, a channel endlessly diverting. Even if a reader is turned off by the switches between omniscience and first-person point of view, the shuffling among tenses, and the backward and forwards skips in time, it's a tall order to levy a charge of poor writing against someone who continually in this novel demonstrates an ear and eye for fresh language.
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,381 followers
September 27, 2007
I read this a couple years ago, and the main thing I remember about it is that the first half is incredible, while much of the second half is retarded. Maybe now that I myself am older and lamer like the character gets in the book, I'd be able to relate better, and it wouldn't bother me so much.... Anyway, I liked this book a lot. The majority of it's amazing, enough so to make up for the crummy bits, which probably aren't actually that crummy, but only seemed so by comparison.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to write a story-of-young-Jewish-Brooklyn-boy-who-loves-comic-books-coming-of-age that I will love, and Jonathan Lethem obviousky gets up pretty frikkin' early, like way earlier than, say, Michael Chabon, or a lot of the other guys out there. Then again, I'm a sucker for the race card.
Profile Image for Dennis.
17 reviews2 followers
October 24, 2007
Midway through:
Fortress has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. A recent trip (just returned) to NYC, Manhattan, and a dip of the toe into Brooklyn (DUMBO and W'Burg mostly) helped elevate this book to the top of the list. Hours of plane time from the left to right coast and back again makes for some serious reading time. Indeed, Fortress has thus far lived up to it's reputation, both among GoodReaders and the Lit World in general.

Finished: The second half was in fact better then the first half. I've been waiting for awhile now for a fiction book to bring back from non-fiction, and this was it. It has all the elements a great book should have: well-written, a great story line, characters with depth that truly pull you in to the story.
Profile Image for Ayelet Waldman.
Author 40 books40.4k followers
March 3, 2013
Well, this is the one. If you only read one book this year, read this one. It's devastating, brilliant, all those things the blurbs say it is.
Profile Image for Joseph.
Author 3 books41 followers
May 2, 2016
A fictionalized story of the author's childhood in Brooklyn; at least I hope it is, because if it isn't, then Lethem is depicting as predators, what seems to be every black and Puerto Rican teenager in Brooklyn. If it is autobiographical, then Lethem had the worst luck of any white kid in the history of American urban blight, getting robbed, bullied, and beat up daily throughout his childhood by every black kid that saw him on the street. He depicts this sort of crime and intimidation as a given, whenever he is spotted on the street. I've heard that muggings were an epidemic in New York City for a long time so I have to believe him, to a degree, and hope he isn't exaggerating to heighten the effect of the character's predicament, even though Dylan, the Lethem character's luck is extremely bad. I wish that after a certain point, it would have dawned on him to carry a steak knife or get karate lessons.

He reads lots of comics and while in his early teens, creates a flying super-hero alter ego called Aeroman, that he shares with his best friend, Mingus. Here's the story's major flaw: The ability to fly and become invisible is bestowed to anyone who possesses the magic ring, left to Dylan by a bum that his father saved from the streets. The two of them stake out areas of high crime and rescue the victims. Mingus, wearing the super-hero outfit, jumps and flies from great heights: the top of a parking garage, a bridge cable, etc. and lands on the criminals, then Dylan joins and they give them a beating. The ability to fly is presented as a fact: that someone can jump from such a height and not get hurt. Mingus even falls from one of the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge and survives. Why impose this absurdity on a realistic story? It's natural that Dylan wants revenge for the bullying he endures, and a super-hero fantasy is a good(and common with children) way to depict that desire, but to tell it as a fact ruins the feeling of the story because it shifts, in a jarring and unnatural way from realism to bad action movie absurdity.

The theme recurs throughout the book and is always a disruptive reminder of what a mistake this element or device is. Towards the end of the book, Dylan gives the ring to his childhood nemesis Robert Woolfolk, so that he can escape from jail. Robert had used the ring before to fly, but Dylan purposefully forgets to tell him that it's changed to an invisibility, rather than a flying ring. Robert takes a leap towards freedom and crashes to his death. Dylan later admits to himself that he killed him for revenge for all the years of bullying. I tried to rationalize that the ring's failure could indicate that it was a fantasy all along, but then why would Robert try to fly with it and why would Dylan admit he killed him? Also, the earlier scenes where the ring is used, leave no doubt that the flying and invisibility are to be taken literally.

The story shifts from childhood to mid-thirties, after a digression into the career of Barrett Rude Junior, Mingus' father and ex-singer for the Distinctions. The digression is written as music history and I think could have been worked in as background, in a much-edited version, to the many scenes with Rude Junior in the childhood section. As a separate section, it's too much a change of tone. It talks about the fictional Rude's place among the other artists of the era and is oddly disrespectful of the real music history of the era.

The father-son relationships between Dylan and his father, and Mingus and his father and grandfather are what hold the book together and are where Lethem achieves real emotion. Also, in places towards the end when he talks about Mingus in jail and finally visits his mother's old house, where she lived for a while after abandoning him and his father. The teenage scenes with him and people his own age are too full of pop culture references that muddle things. They seem to be more intent on mentioning surface details than any real emotional interactions. Dylan seems to have experienced the whole range of early 80s pop culture: he was a graffiti artist hanging out at block parties with rap crews, then a punk in front of CBGBs. Lots of drug scenes throughout but nothing really memorable like Burroughs, Kerouac or even Edward St Aubyn; mostly bored, clinical descriptions of coke highs or dealing scenes, though there are a few vivid impressions of Barrett Rude Junior holed up in his cocaine seclusion. The scenes when they're younger, like when Dylan and Mingus first meet, and with Dylan and Arthur playing chess, are more real. Generally, the parts about early youth are the best part of this book.The last part describing Mingus's life in various prisons is also very strong, some of the best writing in the novel.

The story jumps to some lackluster scenes in his mid 30s in San Francisco, then back to his college days at Bennington[Camden], which are more interesting. There's another lackluster section about UC Berkeley and then the strong prison section. I found the book engaging and readable, even with the flaws – it has heart. It's my first by him and I'll read more.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,692 followers
September 24, 2011
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Boy in Brooklyn. A Künstlerroman that is a tad uneven. When Lethem has his magic prose ring on, however, the book absolutely floats. At times FoS reminds me simultaneously of that middle space between Chabon and Delillo.
Profile Image for Frabe.
1,036 reviews39 followers
September 25, 2017
“Fortezza della Solitudine” è il nome del rifugio segreto di Superman. Nel romanzo di Lethem, in effetti, i supereroi bazzicano parecchio, e non solo come personaggi dei fumetti: tra i protagonisti - è bene dirlo subito, anche come preavviso - gira un anello che li può rendere invisibili, o capaci di volare. Attraverso la storia del bianco Dylan Ebdus e del nero Mingus Rude, Lethem racconta il mondo complicato della Brooklyn degli anni ’70-’80, quello della sua formazione: periferico, duro, povero, multietnico, ricoperto di graffiti, sonorizzato prima dal rythm and blues e dal soul e poi dal punk e dal rap, infestato dalle droghe…
Ho apprezzato a tratti, specie nella parte iniziale della storia, più credibile e avvincente, nonché in occasione dei riferimenti musicali, numerosi e interessanti; ma ho faticato in altri lunghi tratti infarciti di elementi disparati, eccessivi o futili, comunque ridondanti, e ho particolarmente sofferto le fasi di irruzione del fantastico (dei superpoteri) nel reale, cosa che non sopporto. E ancora una volta ho considerato quanto gioverebbe a certi autori, soprattutto d’oltreoceano, lo sfrondamento, l’elisione del troppo.
Profile Image for Chloe.
349 reviews540 followers
May 20, 2007
A fantastic coming-of-age tale set in mid-to-late 1970s Brooklyn. Two motherless boys grow up next door to one another: Mingus Rude, son of an R&B singer, and Dylan Ebdus, son of a University Professor, grow up together on their block following first their passion for comic books (the title is drawn from the name of Superman's secret base in the Arctic) and later their love of graffiti and hip-hop. First and foremost a tale of friendship's makings and falling apart, Lethem also adds a healthy dose of race, class, gentrification, loyalty, and memory to create on of the most satisfying coming of age stories that I have ever read. This isn't A Separate Peace (thank god!), and while it isn't my favorite Lethem, it's certainly up there.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,103 reviews109 followers
August 9, 2019
Jonathan Lethem's lyrical novel The Fortress of Solitude begins with a forceful act of imagination: Isabel Vendle's arbitrary conjuration of "Boerum Hill" from within the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, despite the absence of any natural elevation, using nothing more than lines drawn on a map.

The girls on wheels were the new thing, spotlit to start the show: white people were returning to Dean Street.
That early sentence stopped me cold, at least for a moment. Gentrification isn't the villain here, though—that ugly word doesn't even appear in The Fortress of Solitude until page 51 (along with another, even uglier word), shortly before Mingus Rude (about whom more below) makes his own first appearance in Dylan Ebdus' life. Their Brooklyn neighborhood's changes are nothing more than background for the story Lethem really wants to tell, the photorealistic story (despite some fantastic elements) of two children in the 1970s—one white, one black—growing up together, and then growing apart.

Mingus Rude (and yes, he's named after Charles) is my age, just about—he was born in June 1963, and brought from Philadelphia to Brooklyn by his father, the soul singer Barrett Rude Junior. Mingus' mother is out of the picture—which creates an immediate bond between him and Dylan Ebdus, son of Abraham (and yes, Dylan's named after Bob too). Dylan's mom Rachel isn't dead, but she might as well be—she's gone off somewhere else, to a faraway planet from which only the occasional whimsical postcard can escape.

Invisible in a throng of invisible men{...}
No superpowers are required. There's no actual faraway planet in The Fortress of Solitude, by the way, and no impregnable Fortress of Solitude either—the novel contains some science-fictional elements, true, but by the time Lethem introduces them, they almost feel like an intrusion into the real story. Lethem's novel is an extended investigation into childhood, into growing up in the 1970s—a classic bildungsroman. Two, actually. For even though Dylan is very much Lethem's viewpoint character, Dylan and Mingus, Mingus and Dylan... they're a team, despite their inescapable differences in age, outlook and, oh yeah, skin color.

You could grow up in the city where history was made and still miss it all.
This is true. A lot of The Fortress of Solitude rings true, actually, because it is true, even if fictionalized. I know—I went through a lot of the same shit Dylan does, myself, albeit on a much smaller scale, in a much smaller town where very little history has ever been made. (I was more like Arthur Lomb than Dylan Ebdus, though, truth be told—although that comparison won't mean much to you until you've read the book.)

The Fortress of Solitude is very much the story of a white boy growing up surrounded by—but still never really a part of—black America.

The Fortress of Solitude is also a very male story—here, too, Dylan's behavior towards women, and its outcome, are consistently recognizable and familiar:
Dylan feels despair rising. Fishnet tights do not a cultural vocabulary make. To the ironized, reference-peppered palaver which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk former prep-school girls have frequently proved deaf as cats.


The Fortress of Solitude is divided into three parts (though it isn't otherwise anything like Gaul) (heh—those Latin classes in grade school were good for something after all):

Part 1 (The Underberg) ends Dylan's childhood with a single gunshot.

Part 2 (Liner Note) is an instrumental bridge, brief but essential, helping us transition just as Dylan does, from the East Coast to California, from a child telling himself stories to something more like an adult... still telling himself stories. Part 2 is the section of The Fortress of Solitude most explicitly about the music industry, but music itself—pop, rock, soul, funk, rap—pervades Lethem's novel from start to finish, lifting it up and filling it out. Lyrical... I used that word above. Those songs were everywhere—and there were no Bluetooth earbuds to hide them away from others. Lethem captures that omnipresent soundscape just as if—just maybe—he'd been there himself, listening.

Part 3 (Prisonaires) shifts (abruptly, I thought) to Dylan's first-person perspective, giving us direct confirmation of Dylan's thoughts, which are just about as self-absorbed as one could have guessed from the third-person narrative in Part 1:
There I learned that to find one's art is to kill time dead with one shot.
Well, no—this is (like the name "Boerum Hill" itself) pretentious bullshit, though it does have a great beat—you could at least dance to it.


I read The Fortress of Solitude for the first time shortly after its release in 2003, long B.G. (Before Goodreads), and it immediately became a touchstone for me, a standard of comparison with other works of American literature. Back in 2015, for example, I said that Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue had originally reminded me of Fortress of Solitude, but that Lethem's Dissident Gardens was an even closer sibling.

Now that I've reread Fortress, though, I find myself shifting back to my original impression... both in its impact and its flaws, this earlier novel and Chabon's later one seem to fit together better.

But who in this day and age got answers to his questions?
If you're looking for a happily-ever-after, fairy-tale (or, rather, comic-book) ending, look elsewhere. This novel provides fewer answers than questions, by far.

"The past is a foreign country," as L.P. Hartley famously said. The Fortress of Solitude is a better map to that country than most... and it's one I could have used while I was traveling through that remote and no longer accessible land.
Profile Image for Stacey Falls.
237 reviews5 followers
April 10, 2015
beautiful and dense with poetry, the fortress of solitude grapples with race, segregation, gentrification, poverty, the loss of the american dream, and disillusionment in a deep, interesting, at times playful and magical, fun and a thought-provoking way.

though at times i felt like i was immersed, up to my ears, in a testosterone world (where there are almost zero important female characters whose presence plays a strong role in the book, and the most significant female character is significant because of her absence), it felt like an important and interesting world to explore.

we meet dylan, a young man, doing his best just to survive the day to day of his reality. he wants to fit in, have friends, connect with the other young boys in his neighborhood, but he is also trying to find himself in a complex world that rarely offers easy solutions. and yet this isn't a heartwarming story of an inner personal journey to find peace. on the contrary, the book ends with no catharsis, no solution. just the reality of a strongly segregated brooklyn that is being gentrified at an alarming rate. the reality of this novel is the reality that continues in 2015 post-obama america.

there is a moment of beauty at the very end, one that offers hope, but that promise of hope is tempered by the reality of too many young black men in prison, too many of them strung out on drugs, too many with a rap sheet so long the pages feel flooded with the petty offenses, too many who are metaphorically leaping off buildings, believing they will be able to fly.

possibly the most hopeful character in the book is dylan's father. though mostly absent from his son's life, we can tell he cares, but he is cut adrift by the defection of his wife. yet, he doggedly pursues his dream, his film, which, the one time we are allowed to "see it" leaves our narrator, dylan, stunned, moved, emotional. he feels for the plight of the green triangle, and wants desperately for it to fall and complete its mission.

maybe that is what we are all hoping for, the completion of the dream, the one often promised, but so out of reach. does it help to know we are all collectively holding our breath waiting for it?

2 reviews1 follower
November 2, 2011
I have so many mixed feelings about this book.

The entire time I was reading I couldn't stop thinking about how much I hate Jonathan Lethem. He definitely doesn't believe in humanity, and I'm not sure if he actually intimately knows any black or hispanic people. A lot of the characters were kind of caricatures of hood legends that we've all seen before on Law and Order or Crooklyn.

It's racially messy, and most of the messiness stems from its conventionality. Maybe this was on purpose, but I'm not sure why Lethem thought it was important to present us with yet another white male's construction of blackness. At times I thought that he was just writing this book as some sort of 500 page excuse to experiment with the word nigger. You can tell Lethem's got this weird fetishistic relationship with the word and he tries to project it onto black characters. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it but whatever, that and his general disconnect from people of color made me really dislike the author.

He's also really longwinded and not as funny as he thinks he is. I found myself questioning wether or not certain parts (Liner Note and Prisonnaires) were written poorly on purpose.

Despite (or maybe because of) all of these problems, I still liked the book. I finished it a few days ago and I'm still thinking about it.

At times the prose was gripping and it has some awesome passages. I also think that parts 2 and 3 don't detract from the part 1, if anything they work to show how much things have changed and stayed the same since childhood. The last 2 parts also really made me question the main character's maturity and motives. All of the characters are so sad, live such sad lives, which I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by since the book is called Fortress of Solitude.

I liked how depraved and infuriating it was at times and i enjoyed the elements of magical realism.

That said, I don't see myself reading anything else by Letherm in the future. Mixed feelings, man.
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
July 2, 2016
I finished this book and I think I enjoyed it. I didn't love it, but it was an interesting read. Still, something felt missing, and I have orbited around this review for several days, unsure of what I wanted to say or how. Then, unfortunately for Jonathan Lethem, I started reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and with one sentence, she sort of demolished this whole genre. This isn't to say that I suddenly didn't enjoy the book, but the distance I was feeling from it crystallized.

Note: The rest of this review has been withheld due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,583 reviews999 followers
September 22, 2007
Lethem's melancholic reworking of his New York childhood nostalgia, perhaps, capturing both the first-hand realism and the somewhat meandering semi-plotting of actual memories.
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