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The Fortress of Solitude (novel)

The Fortress of Solitude is a 2003 semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathan Lethem set in Brooklyn and spanning the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. It follows two teenage friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, one white and one black, who discover a magic ring that turns them into superheroes. The novel explores the issues of race and culture, gentrification, self-discovery, and music.

Explanation of the novel's title

The Fortress of Solitude was the fictional abode and headquarters of Superman. Though his main residence was Metropolis, Fortress of Solitude was the only place Superman could truly be himself, as shown by the statues of Superman’s Kryptonian parents that adorn the interior. In the novel, the Fortress of Solitude acts as a direct metaphor for Dean Street, Dylan’s childhood neighborhood. Though Dylan eventually went on to Camden College in Vermont and University of California, Berkeley, the Brooklyn neighborhood always remained his true home, much like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Dean Street held the most meaning to Dylan as the last memory of his mother, the place where he first met Mingus, his shelter from the racial tensions of Brooklyn, and, in general, the street where he spent his entire childhood.

Plot summary

The novel is broken down into three parts, spanning the course of almost three decades. The novel is set in early 1970s New York, in the area of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, which was beginning to feel the first stirrings of gentrification and still known as Gowanus. Dylan Ebdus, the main character, is the shy son of an ‘artsy’ white couple: Rachel, a hippie housewife, and Abraham, a frustrated artist. At the beginning of the novel, Rachel leaves her family, setting the scene for immediate isolation in Dylan's new surroundings. The novel's other main character is Mingus Rude, who, despite waltzing into the novel wearing a Boy Scout uniform, is a year older and more street-savvy than Dylan. The two bond over their absent mothers. Mingus’s reputation and street credibility are enhanced by his father, Barrett Rude Jr., a famous singer who achieved fleeting success in the 1960s with his group The Subtle Distinctions.

By associating with Mingus, Dylan is less fearful and begins to adjust to the crowd around him in this rough neighborhood. The relationship between the boys is not simple. As the two boys grow, their friendship is tested by events around them, but they are brought closer together. From here the story follows the coming of age of the boys, their sexual awakening and the massive cultural changes that took place in the late 1970s and 1980s. Music is especially important (funk, hip-hop, and punk), and the proliferation of drugs from marijuana to cocaine. With the advent of hip hop and the rise of the graffiti culture, they begin to express their identity by ‘tagging’ buildings and literally make their mark in the community. The boys' lives are suddenly thrown into confusion when they inherit a magic ring that enables them to fly. They enjoy their time as "Aeroman," a superhero of their own creation, until Dylan goes off to college and Mingus shoots his grandfather.

The second part of the story is very short, a liner note written by Dylan about Barrett Rude Jr.'s musical career and personal life.

The third part of the story sees Dylan and Mingus develop into adulthood, leading very different lives. Dylan lives in California, where he writes liner notes for a living. Mingus is in Watertown prison. The story also shows flashbacks of the past years: Dylan's brief attendance at Camden College and his life in Berkeley, Mingus' years in and out of prison. Dylan decides to go back to Dean Street and revisit his past, then goes to prison to see Mingus. At the end of the novel, Dylan confronts the demons of his past, ranging from his mother's abandonment to the constant racial tensions of his childhood to the estranged relationship with his father.

Characters in The Fortress Of Solitude

Dylan Ebdus- The main character in the novel is shy, sensitive, and exceptionally bright. He is the son of Rachel and Abraham. Faced with many hardships due to racial tensions, he has a hard time adjusting to the neighborhood until he meets Mingus Rude. The two quickly become close friends. Dylan eventually receives a ring from a homeless man, Aaron X. Doily. As Dylan and Mingus soon discover, the ring has magic powers, conferring the ability of flight and later invisibility upon the wearer. The two quickly become night marauders, setting traps for thieves and thugs as "AeroMan”. As time passes Dylan and Mingus grow apart. Dylan goes to Camden College in Vermont, where he is expelled for drug possession. He later attends UC Berkeley, where he cultivates his taste for music, spinning for a local radio station. Eventually his passion for music lands him a job as a music journalist, and he later writes a book, entitled Liner Notes. Dylan, at the end of the novel, revisits Dean Street and attempts to find Mingus in prison and restore their relationship. In the end, however, he comes to the conclusion that the relationship between himself and his father is the bond that needs to be strengthened.

Mingus Rude- Dylan’s childhood best friend. At first, the two bond over their motherlessness and general abandonment. There is a legend that Barrett Rude Jr., his father, had to pay more than a million dollars to keep him in the settlement with his wife, which leads to Mingus' nickname "Million Dollar Boy." His nickname would soon later change to "DOSE", his street tag. He is referred to as Dose almost exclusively in the second half of the novel. At the end of the first part of the novel, he shoots his grandfather, Barrett Rude Sr. in a conflict involving all three generations of the Rude men. Soon afterward, Dylan attends college and the two boys begin to drift apart. Mingus becomes more dependent upon narcotics and spends the better part of his life in prison for shooting his grandfather and dealing drugs.

Rachel Ebdus- Dylan's mother, 38 years old, an ex-hippie. She loves Dylan unconditionally, teaches him how to fight and is proud of the fact Dylan is one of only three white kids in his school, hoping it will toughen him up. When Robert Woolfolk trashes Dylan's bike, she beats Robert in the street. She abandons Dylan and Abraham rather abruptly. Once she leaves, a postcard here or there is the only mere mention of her until the end of the novel, when Dylan understands why she left.

Abraham Ebdus- Dylan's father, an avant-garde artist. After Rachel abandons the family, he only turns more introverted, shutting himself in the attic to paint his film, a masterpiece that will never be complete. In order to support himself and Dylan, he turns to painting garish covers for science fiction books and eventually becomes a big name in the field. The relationship between himself and Dylan is strained, as the two have nothing in common. However, there is a sort of reconciliation at the end of the novel when Dylan realizes that his father is one of the most important figures in his life.

Barrett Rude Jr.- Former lead singer of a 1960s, moderately successful soul group called The Subtle Distinctions. He had a number of hits back in the day and some that become sampled by current artists. More importantly, he is Mingus' father, and a musical icon for Dylan. After the shooting, he withers into a cocaine addiction and forgets about Mingus, music, and his life in general.

Arthur Lomb- Dylan's only white friend during his elementary and middle school years, Arthur and Dylan are forced to become friends because of their race. Arthur persuades Dylan to apply to Stuyvestant, a public school, on scholarship. However, Dylan is accepted and Arthur is not. The two follow different paths throughout the novel: while Dylan goes on to college and eventually California, Arthur stays in Brooklyn and assumes the role of Mingus' right-hand man, dabbling in drug deals and graffiti. When Dylan revisits Arthur at the end of the novel, Arthur has opened several chic bistros, adding to the general gentrification of the area.

Robert Woolfolk - Conveniently nicknamed “Willfuck” by Henry, Robert plays the role of Dylan’s arch enemy who has the knack of showing up at the worst possible times. Over the course of the novel, he trashes Dylan’s first bike, yokes him repeatedly, and even holds him at gun point during a drug robbery gone a haywire. Robert ends up in prison with Mingus. When Dylan visits the two in prison, Mingus persuades him to offer the ring to Robert to help Robert escape. However, Robert's attempt at a flight escape ends in his demise.

Sequence of appearances

  • Isabel Vendle - Nicknamed “Vendlemachine” by Rachel Ebdus, Isabel is a moderately affluent woman in her seventies. She is crippled, "a knuckle, her body curled around the gristle of old injuries" (pg. 4). She attempts to convert Gowanus into a new, gentrified neighborhood called Boerum Hill.
  • Marilla & La-La - Two young black girls Dylan becomes acquainted with who enjoy chanting songs repetitively. When Dylan revisits Dean Street at the end of the novel, Marilla is still there, sitting on the same stoop.
  • Henry- The oldest of Dylan’s friends from Brooklyn and, arguably, the toughest. Henry, oddly enough, becomes an assistant D.A.
  • Old Ramirez- Puerto Rican owner of the bodega on the corner.
  • Lonnie- Henry’s best friend, later becomes a police officer.
  • Alberto - Puerto Rican neighborhood kid who cheats at stick ball.
  • Croft- Isabel’s friend who introduces Dylan to the world of comic books and the man who had an affair and eloped with Rachel. As an adult, Dylan visits Croft at the end of the novel and confronts him about Rachel.
  • Mrs. Bugge - Big fat white woman who runs a bodega that isn’t “the” bodega.
  • Erlan Hagopian - American art collector who lives on upper East side.
  • The Flying Man - (Aaron X. Doily) Homeless man Dylan witnesses jumping off of a three story building. Dylan and Mingus also take it upon themselves to tag his blanket with “DOSE” as he sleeps in the street. Once Abraham sees the tag, he rushes Doily to the hospital where he bestows the ring upon Dylan.
  • Heather Windle - Dylan’s girlfriend during his summer in Vermont when he stays with her family for The Fresh Air Fund. She is the first person he shows his Aeroman costume to and she does not like it all.
  • Mr. Winegar - Dylan’s teacher who pushes him towards attending Stuyvesant.
  • Barrett Rude Sr.- The father of Barrett Rude Jr., an ex-preacher who has constant conflict with his son's drug-addicted, sinful lifestyle. When he finds that Mingus has also been using and dealing drugs, he confronts Barrett Rude Jr. with a gun. Mingus, in an attempt to protect his father, produces another gun and shoots his grandfather.
  • Gabriel Stern & Timothy Vandertooth - Dylan’s two friends from Roosevelt Island with an affinity for impressions of late 70's films.
  • Pflug - A thirty year old weight lifter/ artist with a knack for painting dragon posters.
  • Linus Millberg - Dylan’s pal who attends punk rock shows at CBGB’s frequently. He also happens to be a math prodigy.
  • Liza Gawcet - Freshman punk rock girl Dylan maybe likes. She loses control of her bladder during the drug robbery exposing to Dylan how naive she is in her cultural vocabulary.
  • Abigale- Dylan’s black girlfriend at Berkeley whom he frequently alienates. During Part Three of the novel, he often calls his apartment with a vague hope of talking to her after a large dispute.
  • Jared Orthman - DreamWorks executive to whom Dylan pitches his story of “The Prisonaires.”
  • Francessca Cassini - Woman who becomes Abraham's girlfriend at the end of the novel. She is nothing like Rachel; she talks a lot and is very caring.
  • Zelmo Swift - Abraham’s business acquaintance who gives Dylan Rachel’s wrap sheet in his limo in Anaheim.
  • Matthew Schraftt - Dylan’s roommate at Camden, bonds with Dylan over the common bond of middle to lower class.
  • Junie Ateck - A young hippie girl who witnesses Dylan flying through the woods.
  • Moira - Dylan’s love interest at Camden, who like every woman in his life, leaves abruptly.
  • Orthan Jamal Jonas Jr.- Nicknamed O.J.J.J., this drug dealer is foiled by Dylan and his newfound powers of invisibility, eventually resulting in a shooting and scandal reported by Vance Christmas.
  • Vance Christmas- Journalist for the Oakland Tribune. Dylan confides the actual accounts of the Bosun’s Locker shoot out. He also uses his name to sneak out of prison after giving Robert Woolfolk the ring.

Major themes

Racial tension

As one of only a few white children growing up in Brooklyn’s public schools, Dylan faces a whole childhood full of public embarrassment and “yokings,” mild forms of mugging and bullying common among elementary school and junior high children. Because of this racial tension, Dylan and Mingus’ friendship exists on almost secret terms. On Dean Street, the two are best friends; at school, they are barely acquaintances. To get through his school years, Dylan befriends another white boy named Arthur Lomb. The two, however, take different approaches to the racial tensions in their neighborhood: while Dylan goes to a private and predominantly white high school on scholarship, Arthur chooses the route of “niggerfication,” using Mingus and Robert Woolfolk as models for his lifestyle.

Graffiti art

Graffiti serves as a status symbol in Lethem’s Brooklyn. Often, the tags served as a new identity for the artists, as shown in Part 3 of the novel, when Mingus is referred to almost solely by his tag name Dose. Dylan, though he dabbles in the world of graffiti art with Mingus, never develops his own tag name but instead uses Mingus' name Dose in an effort to further merge himself with his best friend. "Things are radically simplified: the white kid's stopped looking for his own moniker, been encouraged by the black kid to throw up his perfect replication of the black kid's tag instead. Dose, Dose, Dose. It's a happy solution for both. The black kid gets to see his tag spread further, in search of bragging points for ubiquity, that bottom-line standard for a graffiti writer's success. . . . What's in it for the white kid? Well, he's been allowed to merge his identity in this way with the black kid's, to lose his funkymusicwhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are both Dose, no more and no less. A team, a united front, a brand name, an idea." (pg 136) Arthur, on the other hand, strives to distinguish himself with the tag name Art, but never reaches the level of importance that Mingus achieves. In later years, Mingus’ talent for graffiti art carries him through his years of prison as both a source of income and pride. Graffiti art is also juxtaposed with the avant-garde art of Dylan’s father, Abraham.

Music as a culture

Throughout the novel, Lethem seems to group people into distinct cultures by the music they listen to. Dylan is torn between the world of R&B, funk, and hip-hop opened for him by Mingus and Barrett Rude Jr. and the world of punk and classic rock expected of him by his classmates at Stuyvestant High and Camden College. Eventually, during his years as a DJ on the UC Berkeley student radio, Dylan emerges as a mix of music styles and cultures, which eventually leads to his profession as a writer of liner notes. Part 2 of the novel is a direct reproduction of Dylan's liner note about Barrett Rude Jr.'s music and life. The references to music appear everywhere throughout the novel, even in the names of the two main characters, who were each named after different musical geniuses (Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus).

Gentrification

The Fortress of Solitude opens with Isabel Vendle’s vision of converting the projects of Gowanus into a classy new neighborhood called Boerum Hill. Though the novel leaves the theme of gentrification as Lethem follows Dylan’s childhood, it is revisited at the end of Part 3, when Dylan returns to Dean Street to find it almost foreign. To Dylan’s surprise, Arthur has remained in Boerum Hill and instead of fighting the gentrification, catalyzed it by opening several chic shops and bistros.

Friendship vs. love

Dylan’s friendship with Mingus is often blurred with admiration, such as the strange desire to “take a pick to his nappy-ass ‘Fro” (pg. 206) and the short scene of homoeroticism that follows. At the end of the book, in Part 3, Dylan refers to Mingus as “the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover.” (pg. 441) The ring acts as a recurring symbol of the connection between Dylan and Mingus.

Drug abuse

The novel chronicles the movement of America’s drug addiction, from marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s to cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. Cocaine is a central object in the book, almost becoming a character with its own actions and personalities. It is also the source of many characters’ troubles. Because of cocaine, Dylan is expelled from Camden College, Barrett Jr. wastes away to a waif, Mingus spends much of his adult life in and out of jail.

Father-son dynamics

Three father-son relationships evolve throughout The Fortress of Solitude: Dylan & Abraham, Mingus & Barrett Jr., Barrett Jr. and Barrett Sr. Abraham and Dylan’s relationship is strangely empty and aloof, but is marked by a reconciliation and silent understanding set to Brian Eno’s “Another Green World” that serves as the ending to the entire novel. Mingus and Barrett Jr.’s relationship is also aloof, but is marked by the two common passions for music and illicit drugs. Barrett Jr. and Barrett Sr.’s relationship grows increasingly strained and violent as the novel wears on, ending in a loaded confrontation that involves all three generations of the Barrett men.

Literary Style

Stylistically, the novel is written as a third-person narrative with distinctive dialogue, though toward’s the very end of the book dialogue-intensive scenes and the brief entry of “Linear Notes” by Dylan are introduced to mirror his alienation from society. Since the work covers Dylan's life from the time he was a child to his growing independence and moral detachment from Brooklyn as a young man, the style of the work progresses through each of its thirty-four chapters, with the complexity of language gradually increasing. However, throughout the work, slang and music are used to portray indirectly the state of mind of the protagonist, and the subjective impact of the events of his life. Through the use of these sly, literary devices Lethem intends to capture the subjective experience through music, rather than to present the actual experience through prose narrative.

Literary significance and reception

A common point of criticism of The Fortress of Solitude is the misplaced idea of the magic ring that confers the abilities of flight and invisibility. Though it does tie in with the sporadic comic book theme, it seems a jarring departure from the stark traumatic reality of Dylan’s childhood. Some critics see it as almost a gimmick; the glaring unreality of superhero fantasy is an unforgettable and almost unforgivable trait of the book. On the other hand, the magic powers of the ring only enhance the innocence, idealism and, to a degree, naiveté of Dylan’s childhood. Our main characters soon learn that “[it doesn’t] solve much of anything. A caped crime fighter is powerless against the shape-shifting demons of racism. A white boy might dream of becoming invisible, while a black man, whether or not he's read Ralph Ellison, might worry that he already is.” (A. O. Scott, New York Times)

Another recurring issue is the switch from third person narration in Part One of the novel to Dylan’s first person perspective in Part Three. Lethem intended this change to show the reader the pure, idyllic quality of innocence and childhood and the abrupt ending that Dylan experiences. As he said in an interview, “I did want to portray the kind of dream quality that childhood has. Being pulled out of it at the end of that section is sort of a rupture. Even though on the face it's a difficult childhood that Dylan has, it seems like a paradise lost once it's lost... You do become closer to him in the sense that first person forces an identification, but I think it's an uncomfortable one then because he's kind of a shit in the last part of the book and you loved him in the first part... I think there's almost a sense of betrayal that you feel when you encounter the small-mindedness of his adult life and the puniness of his moral sphere." (interview by Jay MacDonald, 2003) This switch is often viewed as detracting, since the adult Dylan is less evocative than the boy. However, this also supports the counter-argument that Dylan’s first person narration only strengthens the fact that he has become hollow and hopelessly lost.

Critics often use the words “ambitious” and “daring” to describe The Fortress of Solitude. It is a sprawling novel that attempts to connect many, many different themes. Lethem, who is often compared with contemporary literary geniuses like Richard Price and Don DeLillo, seems to almost bluntly tackle the project, rather than subdue it with finesse. Thus, the novel is also referred to as “messy” and “chaotic.” Though considered one of Lethem’s better novels, it is not quite his best. It is acknowledged as a captivating book and immensely readable, but it not so widely said to fall a bit short of masterpiece.

Allusions and references

Allusions to other works

Artist Song
Wild Cherry "Play That Funky Music"
Roland Kirk "The Inflated Tear"
The Main Ingredient "Afrodisiac"
The Sugarhill Gang "Rapper's Delight"
Marvin Gaye "Got to Give It Up"
Shuggie Otis "Inspiration Information"
Lou Reed "Walk on the Wild Side"
Foxy "Get Off"
Rufus (with Chaka Khan) "Tell Me Something Good"
N.W.A. "Straight Outta Compton"
Ian Dury "Reason to Be Cheerful"
Rick James "Super Freak"
Esther Phillips "Black-Eyed Blues"
Digital Underground "Foghorn Leghorn"
Run DMC "Walk This Way"
Brian Eno "Another Green World"

Allusions to actual history, geography and current science

The novel takes place in the early 1970s and spans the next two decades, making references to many political and artistic events during that time. At one point, the main characters are affected by the resignation of Richard Nixon. They discuss the effects and ramifications of the New York City blackout of 1977, the benefits of the Fresh Air Fund, and the explosion of the punk scene at CBGB. There are also passing references to the capture of David Berkowitz, the legitimacy of the Yankees World Series victory, and the importance of Devo.

Awards and nominations

Nominated for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

A film version, directed by Joshua Marston, is currently in pre-production.

Publication history

2003, United States, Doubleday ISBN 0385500696, Pub date 16 September 2003, Hardcover

References

External links

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