The Fortress of Solitude By Jonathan Lethem Doubleday, 528 pages, $26.00
It's happened a hundred times since Peter Stuyvesant. A few adventurous white people with a bit of scratch, but not much, wander one day into a poor New York neighborhood populated by people of color. Relishing the possibilities, these white folk buy up the real estate with cash. The dark people are out (displaced) is the word they like over at the New School?and the place is fixed up. Now a cafe's on the ground floor of a five-floor building?$4.50 for a flavored coffee?and the lofts above rent for 10 grand a month.
The much-ballyhooed gentrification. It's what happened only four or five years ago to 125th St., it's last generation's SoHo, it's Brooklyn's Boerum Hill. The latter is the setting for Jonathan Lethem's ambitious new novel. Can you hear the race card clattering in the bicycle's spokes?
This is where it's at, a day before it's there, and this book might be where the novel goes next, the early spark that kindles tomorrow's hot property. Which is not to say that it's wholly illuminating.
Dylan Ebdus, named after Bobby Zimmerman, is a Jewish kid. Check that off your list. In the other corner, we have Mingus Rude, a black son of a soul-singer-turned-coke-freak. Another check. We have Charles M. playing his wide-waisted bass fiddle in our minds, and extra points go to Mingus the Younger for that evocative surname. So do 500 pages limning a cross-racial friendship?"lived in a motherless realm, full of secrets"?make a, or even the, great American novel?
Not really. Most of the opening third of this hulking, stretching thing is taken up with a realist exposition of 1970s Brooklyn, the racial lines intertwining and disappearing, the slow redemption of a neighborhood as an old, tired metaphor for coming-of-age. The Ebdus family moves to Dean St. because they can, because Dylan's father is a schizo-type abstract painter and his mother is a radicalized post-hippie who has decided it's the place for them. Their move, understand, is a statement of daring, a platform of the genus boho. The Rudes, however, have no choice: Dean St.'s where they live, where they'll always live.
Fulfilling the Superman promise of the title, Dylan and Mingus find themselves guardians of a magic ring that allows them superhuman powers?they can fly. The Times They are A'Changin' or Fables of Faubus? Are these powers dreams, fantasies of young boys trapped in a tough neighborhood all on the precipice of adolescence? Or are the powers just touches, albeit entertaining touches, of Magical Realism? Lethem never makes up his mind, but to his credit, his characters transcend their powers?or lose them, or mature?and Dylan and Mingus veer off into the greater world, beyond Dean St. Dylan goes from tagging?DOSE is the tag he cops from Mingus?and siding-up in early DJ wars, to Stuyvesant High, and through to Camden College, an exclusive Northeastern school, en route to a gig writing limp-dick music reviews, while Mingus rots in prison.
Dylan is hip among his white peers, hip because he grew up around and experimented sexually with blacks. He's supposed to wear his upbringing as some sort of Purple Heart, a badge of honor that he sews onto his chipped shoulder again and again, always stoic. And again, Mingus is in prison. This isn't Huck and Jim, a white and a slave on a midnight raft. This is "real life," or it's written like it is, which is why it doesn't make for great literature.
The Fortress is a ghetto of analogies, some on the sentence level, many beyond. But there are a few glaring beauties Lethem, for inexplicable reasons, ended up missing. Lethem should be smart enough to understand that racism can also be gentrified. Certainly a literature that adumbrates the racial divide?imparting the phenomenon with a nostalgic biography, setting and period?is a form of gentrifying, prettifying irrational appetites and destructive fears.
I mentioned that Lethem's might be a model for novels to come, and what I mean is that the novel itself, its subject matter, has become gentrified. This novel, specifically, might make it "okay" for white people to write about their half of the racism cookie, to claim status as observers, okay; as outsiders, maybe; as victims, no way in hell.
James Baldwin and Richard Wright would probably have applauded Lethem's style?admirable images, phrase-making and song lyrics stewed together?but disagree with his approach to the material. Iceberg Slim's laughing somewhere (probably in hell) about this book that presents an improbable, though later strained and neglected, cross-racial friendship.
Anyway, the great white-written New York race book, especially Jewish/Black book, has already been written: The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. Published in the 70s as a direct response to racial tensions in post-hippie New York, it's a heartfelt novel that makes Lethem's attempt seem too little and too late. (Cf also Malamud's incredible racial fantasies?the stories "Black Is My Favorite Color" and "The Angel Levine.") There's no anthropology in The Tenants at all, just an allegory that isn't, a New York emptied of everything except a kike and a nigger stalking each other, and somewhere inside of those two great characters, H. Lesser and Willie Spearmint, two human souls. In the last pages of Malamud's masterwork, they end up killing each other; whereas Lethem, expounding upon the decades, offers something some critic or marketing exec would call "more complex" or "nuanced" or "textured."
So too bad for the gentrification of literature, the idea that fiction?yes, it's still called fiction?needs to address the whole multitude of social inadequacies, especially those of the self-appointed radicals, the hubristic liberals, the perpetually newish kids on the old, dark block.