Race, music, education, institutions and the birth of hip hop are just some of the topics for which Jonathan Lethem finds room in this novel. The first half follows young Dylan Ebdus as he deals with growing up as one of the few white kids on his block in 1970s Brooklyn. [amtap book:isbn=0571219357]
After his mother leaves, Dylan is raised by his father, a reclusive artist who spends his days in the attic painting a film frame by frame. Helping Dylan through his isolation and the frequent bullying he faces is Mingus Rude, another boy being raised by a reclusive father - in this case, Barrett Rude Jr., a soul singer who has retired and is sinking slowly into drug addiction.The boys discover graffiti, rap and comic books as well as a mysterious ring that bestows superpowers on its wearer. Gradually Mingus slips into truancy and drug use, while Dylan discovers new wave music and high school hipsters.
In the second half, Lethem shifts into first person and we find Dylan as an adult, writing sleevenotes for compilation albums and living in California. Thrown into crisis by a row with his black girlfriend, Dylan returns to Brooklyn to see his father and to find out what became of Mingus.
Lethem's evocation of childhood is very strong. He conveys Dylan's sense of alienation and his constant unease at his surroundings but he also has a feel for the smaller details: Dylan stuck in the house, bored and wishing time would go more quickly, his confused early attempts to find an identity for himself and so on.
Less successful is the magic ring, which seems at odds with the urban realism of Dylan's Brooklyn. It's not clear what it represents, other than adding a link with the book's diversion into comic books, and I think the novel would have been stronger without it.
In the second half the ring drives Dylan through the last twists of the plot into a place of almost complete unreality. It's to Lethem's credit that the final scenes carry dramatic weight, rather than feeling laughably unrealistic, but - again - it's hard not to feel that Lethem would have been forced to write a stronger ending without the ring as a prop.
The second half in general is less successful than the first. It continues the theme of Dylan's quest for a place in the world but does so in a less interesting way. Dylan pitches a movie to a cliched studio executive, has a drugs parties with a cliched young waitress and so on.
Connecting all of this is the music. Lethem has a good ear for what Dylan would have been listening to, for the music that would have mattered to him as well as the music that would have symbolised his isolation. There's an awareness here of the constant interchange between black and white music, particularly in the new wave era.
The Fortress of Solitude is by no means a bad book. It's interesting, particularly for its treatment of the birth of hip hop, but it failed to engage me emotionally.