A Boy Grows In Brooklyn

Play that funky music white boy: Brooklyn bard Jonathan Lethem
Sylvia Plachy

Isn't it time that the literary world paid tribute to Bil Keane? Yes, the second "L" is missing Bil Keane, the Family Circus Bil Keane. The man who draws children so wholesome they make the Campbell Soup kids look like goths turned loose at an all-you-can-tattoo-and-everywhere-you-can-pierce buffet. The visual savant who turned his boy Billy's wanderings into a long dotted line--a cartographic representation of the daily passage of time.

Dylan Ebdus, the timid kid at the center of Jonathan Lethem's new novel, The Fortress of Solitude, is strictly a Marvel Comics man: The Avengers, Warlock, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. The broken home in Brooklyn where Dylan grows up in the 1970s is barely a "family," and the rough neighborhood that torments him each and every day is less a "circus" than a type of gladiatorial sport. Yet what is missing from Lethem's novel--and this rich and empathetic book is not missing much--is a Family Circus-style map. Dylan's cityscape is, in its way, every bit as charmed and mysterious a place as the Shire of the Hobbits. And for those who didn't grow up in Abe Beame's collapsing New York, an illustrated folio laying out the geography of Dylan's lonely existence on the streets of Gowanus would come in handy.

Dean Street is where Dylan's white parents--his father an emotionally distant abstract painter, his mother an AWOL hippie--first bought a narrow brownstone. It's a stretch filled with Puerto Rican men and their shiny cars, boys playing stoopball, girls reciting rhymes from pop radio and other more occult stores of girl knowledge. Nearby are Wyckoff, Bergen, Nevins--the streets Dylan's father trawls one day looking for the bicycle that's been borrowed (or is that stolen?) from his son. Farther away still is Brooklyn Heights, playground to white kids who are safely sequestered in private school; the yard of P.S. 38 where Dylan views his first DJ battle between competing neighborhood crews; the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where he wanders with his black best friend, Mingus, in search of places to emblazon their graffiti tag.

By design, Fortress of Solitude is a four-dimensional tale, spreading out from a single spot in Brooklyn. It begins in Ebdus's cloistered backyard and expands out to his stoop, and then his street, his gentrifying neighborhood, his borough, his slumping city, and beyond--all the while playing a melody of memory by stretching out the accordion bellows of time.

That tune is sometimes mournful, sometimes exuberant--and often both. From its obsession with what's on the AM radio to its pop-music punning, The Fortress of Solitude is a musical novel in nearly every sense. (Hell, the lead characters are named Dylan and Mingus!) Notes skim along the surface of the prose: When Mingus and Dylan journey to check out a massive tag near the waterfront, they "take it to the bridge"; and when Dylan decides to return home from his adult life in Berkeley, he "had to get back to where he once belonged." Similarly, the dissonant chords of human relationships clang over musical disagreements. The romantic swan song between Dylan and his squeeze has her tossing his jewel boxes on the ground, slamming the "Ebdus collection of sad black folks....Little Willie John, dead. Little Esther and Little Jimmy Scott, sad--all the Littles are sad."

The sad black musician Dylan knows best is Mingus Rude's father Barrett. He's a reclusive singer--Lethem has invented a full box-set catalogue, replete with liner notes, for Rude's Philly soul group "The Subtle Distinctions"--and an erratic hedonist, sinking into a haze of drugs. While Barrett hears songs floating in stray phrases, TV quips, the sound of people's names, Dylan feels afflicted by a single lyric: Play that funky music white boy. "That song ought to be illegal," Lethem writes of its effect on Dylan. "It wasn't racist--you'll never sort that one out, don't even start--so much as anti-you...Every time your sneakers met the street, the end of that summer, somebody was hurling it at your head, that song."

Being a white boy in the public schools of Brooklyn is Dylan's original torment--his original sin, he sometimes thinks--and the lasting source of his ennui, his confused self-identity, his muddled success as a backward-looking rock critic and his failure as boyfriend to a black graduate student. Young Dylan's fate is to be called across the street by his black peers, goaded as racist if he hesitates, then headlocked ("yoked") and relieved of his walking-around money--a kind of punishment for not having crossed the street enthusiastically enough in the first place. But "the fact of it: he'd cross the street to have his pockets emptied."

If this psychological double bind--this lacuna of guilt and resentment--feels surprisingly intimate, it reflects Lethem's own childhood as a cowardly Quaker growing up during the "Ford to City: Drop Dead" era. Among the many achievements of this novel is the almost magical sense of disorientation experienced by Dylan, "the mole-man." What makes it tolerable for him are the sporadic moments of stoop-side splendor, the interconnectedness of all people and all things. This mood takes an even more fantastic turn in the appearance of a magic ring--a plot device that pulls Dylan out of the dry pages of Marvel and propels him out onto streets that could sorely use a superhero, but don't particularly want one. By the time rock cocaine has crushed the neighborhood like boulders from an avalanche, the magic ring has switched from fulfilling the teenage desire for flight to granting its adult wearer the gift of invisibility.

There's something vaguely Gumpian about the way trends and urban history roll over the novel, the onset of the crack siege and the first appearance of Pong, of scratching and emceeing, Jaws, the word yo, punk rock at CBGBs. But in the end, Lethem's intention isn't to paste his characters over an outline of the late 20th century. Instead, this most excellent novel shows one confused man-child circling the block where he grew up, again and again, without ever fully understanding his place.

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