The Bard of Brooklyn

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Hey, here's a really horrendous idea for a novel! Two boys growing up together on a bad block in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1970s — one's white and introverted, and one's black and cool. The white kid's name is Dylan, and the black kid is called Mingus. And they can fly. Want me to go on? Not really? But listen: if you skip out now, you'll miss one of the richest, messiest, most ambitious, most interesting novels of the year.

The hero of Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday; 511 pages) is smart, scrawny, sensitive Dylan Ebdus. He's 5 when his parents move to a hard-luck black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. His mom is a hippie, his dad a painter who spends his days on an incomprehensible, unfinishable masterpiece. Soon Mingus Rude moves in down the block. His father Barrett is a once famous soul singer — he fronted the fictional Subtle Distinctions — now in drastic, drug-addicted decline (Barrett owes more than a little to Marvin Gaye). The boys become friends — Mingus the leader, Dylan the follower — and Lethem spends much of the novel carefully mapping out the social dynamics of their microcosmic Brooklyn block: the ball games, the one empty house, the guy who's always washing his car, a bully drawn with scary accuracy. You can practically hear the kids' voices as they goof on Dylan's name: "D-Man," "John Dillinger," "D-Lone," "Lonely D," "Dill-icious." Ho, snap! Halfway through the book, you could draw the block from memory.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Lethem nails the small stuff with such relentless perfection — Mad magazine, the Fantastic Four, graffiti tags, Car Wash, Star Wars — that we get the big picture too, the story of the 1970s told as a painful national adolescence. Soul begets funk begets rap. Cigarettes lead to weed, which gives way to cocaine, which leads to crack. As they get older, Mingus grows harder and quieter, Dylan nerdier but more confident. Yet a slender but tough strand still connects the boys, and they fight against all the usual suspects — racism, violence, their parents' failing marriages — to keep it. In the novel's second half, really an extended epilogue, Lethem follows his principals into lives rendered bitter and crooked by the unresolved anger of their Brooklyn beginnings.

Lethem is one of those novelists who get better book by book, from his early science-fiction noodlings to the hard-boiled, atmospheric Motherless Brooklyn. The Fortress of Solitude is a glorious, chaotic, raw novel, and God knows there are any number of ways to pick it apart. Lethem has adopted a furiously literary, poetic style that would look overwrought in the pages of an undergraduate literary magazine, and he gambles on a risky element of magical realism: the boys discover a magic ring that intermittently (it's capricious) gives them superpowers. But Lethem grabs and captures 1970s New York City, and he brings to it a story worth telling: two brave boys whom an entire city couldn't tear apart.