Fortress Of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
In his latest novel, Fortress Of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem writes about race relations
in Brooklyn -- something he knows first-hand. Lethem grew up in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood
now known as Boerum Hill. Like Dylan Edbus, the main character in Fortress Of Solitude, he
was one of a few white children in a predominately black area who moved away and then returned
after it had been gentrified.
"The search for me in trying to write this book was to give name to something, an experience
that I'd had," he explained to Terry Gross in an interview for the radio show Fresh Air
The book is divided into three sections. The first, told in the third person, is the story
of the childhood of Dylan Ebdus. Dylan is the son of artistic hippies and virtually the only white
child in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The second part is a series of liner notes written by the adult Dylan,
now a rock critic in San Francisco. In the third section, Lethem switches to a first-person
perspective as he follows Dylan attempting to come to terms with his childhood.
As a child, Dylan Ebdus, the main character, is faced with a kind of reverse racism. His
neighborhood "whiteboy" status marks him as a ready-made victim for "yokings," ritualized muggings
that follow a specific and predictable format. Meanwhile, Dylan's mother uses her son to live out her
political beliefs -- wearing his minority status as a badge of pride and bragging about how he is
one of the only white kids at his school.
Through the individual experiences of his characters, Lethem attempts to confront the racial
attitudes and stereotypes common of the 1970s. "There's a lot of stuff in it that is probably
kind of racist in its way," he told Gross. "Back and forth -- there are characters who are racist."
When Dylan comes back at the end of the book, the neighborhood had changed. He finds stylish
cafes across the street from his junior high school, and hipsters living on his old street,
complaining about the how trendy the neighborhood has become.
In depicting a process that has affected many New York neighborhoods, Lethem's
affection for the setting of his novel is evident.
"His love of Brooklyn suffuses every paragraph;" writes
Michael Faber in the Guardian. "His understanding of the dynamics of inner-city life
is equally sharp whether he is describing
a game of handball, a routine mugging or a shoplifting jaunt."
To read an excerpt from Fortress Of Solitude, click here.
Reviews of Fortress of Solitude
When Dylan Met Mingus (New York Times)
'Fortress:' A Look At Life On The Defensive (USA Today)
Fear Of Flying (New York Magazine)
Lost Exit From Brookyn (Guardian)
Fortress Of Solitudes (Onion)
Interviews with Jonathan Lethem
The Paris Review
Barnes and Noble (audio file)