I think of Jonathan Lethem as the poet laureate of gentrification. This is true in the literal sense — in the case of the subject of this piece, The Fortress of Solitude, and to a somewhat lesser extent with his follow up to it, You Don’t Love Me Yet — in that he writes about neighborhoods in transition: Gowanus in Brooklyn and Echo Park in Los Angeles. But Lethem is also an author gentrifying genre fiction – noir thriller and sci-fi – as he did in his earlier novels Gun with Occasional Music and Girl in a Landscape. Perhaps it’s a kind of reverse gentrification, in that case.
The Fortress of Solitude is the tale of Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, friends across the color line in the evolving neighborhood of Gowanus or Boerum Hill, as it would come to be called. Their racial difference hangs over every interaction in the book, despite their shared tastes in comic books and music. Split into multiple parts, divided by something that already seems incredibly ancient – a liner note – the book is shot through with pop culture, punk rock trivia and super powers. At its best moments, the book perfectly describes a time and a place in near constant transformation, and in realizing two great characters, in Dylan and Mingus. At its worst, it leaves itself open to charges of a kind of forced exotification, as the adult Dylan seems to have collected artifacts of African-American culture – most notably an African-American girlfriend – as one might the relics of a lost civilization.
You have to admire Lethem’s bravery — he fearlessly addresses race in a way that most white writers wouldn’t dare. At the same time, he embraces his geek origins, blending together hip-hop, punk, graffiti art, avant guard film and comic book culture into a dazzling pastiche. While it will likely be his earlier book Motherless Brooklyn that solidifies his reputation, The Fortress of Solitude remains his “biggest” novel to date, a book that tries to stand next to the other greats of the decade. That it doesn’t entirely succeed does little to diminish Lethem’s stature as one of the decade’s great writers.