Jonathan Lethem has spent the better part of his literary career circling the one book everyone knew he would eventually write: the big Brooklyn novel. "I was mostly kind of intimidated by the material itself, the fact of growing up in Brooklyn. I was avoiding it in all of the early books," he admits by phone during a vacation in Bay Point, Maine. "I certainly had it in mind for a long, long time before I wrote it. There are elements in it that go back to impulses to write a novel that I had when I was 18, 19 and 20, when at that point I would never have even approached having the necessary tools to do justice to this material in any way." Blending the science fiction, mystery and Western genres, Lethem received critical acclaim for such earlier works as Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Amnesia Moon (1995) and Girl in Landscape (1998), proving himself the likely successor to his literary heroes Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
Then came Motherless Brooklyn. When his noir mystery featuring Tourette's Syndrome sufferer Lionel Essrog won the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award, it afforded Lethem the time and the confidence to finally confront his Brooklyn past head-on, without using spaceships or talking animals.
Five years in the writing, The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem's 640-page "spiritual autobiography," finds the 39-year-old at the top of his game as he vividly re-creates the mixed blessing of growing up in Brooklyn during the '70s, '80s and '90s. Set against the backdrop of urban gentrification and the moral drift of post-'60s America, Lethem's magical history tour follows the very different lives of two Brooklyn friends one black, one white from stickball, comic books and graffiti "tagging" through garage bands, crack cocaine and the Hollywood shuffle. An ambitious, kaleidoscopic tour de force with its own soundtrack of soul, punk and rap, The Fortress of Solitude is Do the Right Thing meets Once Upon a Time in America.
Lethem's parents were among the first wave of bohemians, radicals and artists to decamp into the blighted inner-city neighborhood in the early '70s, well before gentrification became a household curse word. Those mean streets weren't kind to the likes of Lethem, who was routinely "yoked" (relieved of available cash and/or valuables) by black toughs skilled at intimidating young white newcomers.
"I think in many ways it was a kind of social transaction that was community making," he says. "It was a kind of conversation that was going on, a very uncomfortable one, but why should it have been comfortable?" Despite his everyday ordeals, Lethem found Brooklyn an irresistible street fair of popular culture that seeped indelibly into his life and art.
Fortress tells the story of Dylan Edbus, the white son of an artist, and Mingus Rude, the black son of a famous soul singer, Brooklyn buddies whose friendship embodies the complex racial, cultural and social changes of the era. In the book's first section, "Underberg," Lethem details their adolescence in a hyped-up third-person narrative so saturated with brand names, musical groups and tagger slang that you can almost hear the boom boxes blasting from the stoops. It ends abruptly in a shooting.
"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." Lethem, who attended Bennington College, likewise dispatches Dylan to Vermont, where he first discovers the sad truth: any identity he might ever hope for is hostage to the harsh realities of life back on Dean Street. Dylan has no better luck becoming a Californian (Lethem also lived in Berkeley for a decade), though his attempt to pitch a film project to a vapid producer is one of the book's finer set pieces.
Meanwhile, back in the 'hood, Mingus sinks further and further into the same crack cocaine addiction that destroyed his father. He eventually ends up in a succession of New York prisons. The climactic jailhouse reunion between the two estranged friends is an oblique pas de deux of two lives sadly squandered. The book's final section, "Prisonaires," is narrated by Dylan, a subtle shift of voice that makes the ending all the more chilling.
"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," Lethem says. "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." Lethem admits the best part of the success he achieved with his previous novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is the freedom to continue to surprise his readers. Looking for Motherless Brooklyn II? Forget about it.
"I've been really rewarded for what a lot of people in the past have been punished for, which is refusing to repeat myself," he says. "There are writers, even some with tremendously successful careers, who feel that they can't go and write whatever they would like, that there is an expectation built up that they're at the mercy of, and I don't have that. If anything, I have almost the reverse; the readers that I meet and hear from are sold on this idea that I'm going to keep mixing things up and meandering, and they would be disappointed if I did repeat myself." As he approaches the big 4-0, Lethem says he's relieved to have finally put the motherless place behind him.
"I don't know a lot about what comes next, but I've realized that I'm probably going to leave Brooklyn aside for a while now, that I've just spent enough time focused so completely on that place. I think I'll write a book that's contemporary, not at all historical, and maybe also leave children and parents alone for a bit. I've been obsessing over those matters for three books in a row."
Jay MacDonald is a writer based in Mississippi.