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The Fortress of Solitude follows a pair of friends through three turbulent decades in Brooklyn

The Fortress of Solitude

By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday, 511 pp., $26

If you're a Superman fan, you know about his Fortress of Solitude. A massive hollow mountain not far from the North Pole, it was where the superhero went to relax when he wasn't rescuing the rest of us. The hideaway was also a monument to Superman's very un-superhuman appetite for nostalgia; its cavernous rooms were packed with memorabilia. The legendary comic book writer Elliot Maggin describes the place as a "repository for collectibles -- the junk and treasure of the great man's life" and "the final privacy he had."

Jonathan Lethem's remarkable new novel is more than a tribute; it's the author's own fortress. A 511-page social-realist epic chronicling the lives of two boyhood friends -- Dylan and Mingus, one white, one black, and both motherless in 1970s Brooklyn -- the book is a repository for all the junk and treasure, experiences and obsessions, of Lethem's life thus far: class, music, memory, commitment, loss, and race, not to mention a prodigious store of what feels like impressions and memories culled from Lethem's own Brooklyn childhood. That he's already tackled these preoccupations in one way or another in his previous books hardly matters; you could prop each novel and anthology inside this epic and still have room for more. This is Lethem as we've never seen him before.

On the face of it, the book's most striking departure is its fidelity to reality. Before ''Motherless Brooklyn" made Lethem famous in 1999, he spent his time layering what can best be described as sci-fi premises into various genres -- Western, academic, crime. They are engaging, inventive books, each one different from the next. Perhaps because of this, they lacked the consistency needed to earn Lethem a wide readership; it's almost as if he were purposely evading recognition, or maybe just flexing his muscles, in preparation for the real deal. Which ''The Fortress of Solitude" unquestionably is. Save for one fantastical twist, it directly confronts the world in which we live, taking on everything from white liberal guilt and the politics of gentrification to the brutal realities of the prison system.

Dylan's mother, Rachel -- a stubbornly idealistic Brooklyn native committed to living out her politics -- moves her husband and son to the newly named Boerum Hill; theirs is one of two or three white families in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. "She had grown up a Brooklyn street kid and so would Dylan," her thinking goes. Dylan's father, Abraham, is an emotionally passive near-recluse, fiercely committed to his life's work, an abstract film he painstakingly paints with tiny brushes one frame at a time. Dylan himself drifts dreamily between their worlds -- lolling in the snug abstractions of his father's studio or priming himself for thrilling, bewildering encounters with his vivid, chain-smoking mother, before she invariably shoos him onto the street, which quickly becomes his most consuming reality.

Seen from Dylan's child-eye level, the streets of Brooklyn are a menacing place, fraught with the unspoken rules and allegiances of childhood made manifest in ballgames and comic books and, later on, in the mysterious and pervasive languages of graffiti, drugs, and violence. It's not easy being black, and it's not easy being white, either. The borough itself is a living presence, with stoops that "lean away from the street," a sky that smashes against the rooftops, and an attitude of overall indifference to the racial inequities proscribing the lives of its inhabitants. That Dylan finds friendship with generous, inherently cool Mingus, a year or two his senior and the son of an influential musician, is a miracle the boy recognizes immediately: "Mingus Rude was a world, an exploding bomb of possibilities." The two stumble through childhood and into adolescence, Mingus as Dylan's sometime protector, constant hero, and silent companion in motherlessness; Mingus's mother was never part of the picture, and Dylan's abruptly leaves him and his father, never to return. Rachel's absence is a void that comes to shape Dylan's life.

Indeed, the entire first half of the book is so densely written that it comes to feel as if the sentences are rushing to fill this very void. Or maybe as if the book itself is a mountain of words sheltering a vast hollowness not unlike Superman's arctic hideaway. Here is the novel's second most striking departure: the language. Where Lethem's previous books are all written in sharp, clear prose that pushes the narrative along, the writing here -- like Abraham's film -- is slow, detailed, even indulgent. At one point, rather than simply wait on the street corner for his nemesis Robert Woolfolk to return with his bike, Dylan "stood naked in the minutes as they accumulated, as they stacked up indifferently on the distant face of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower clock. The day was like an unanswered telephone, the mute slate ringing. The call of Dylan's arm-swinging vigil went unreplied."

If the first half of the book is embedded with stories and secrets, then the second half shoulders the burden of carrying them into adulthood. Once Dylan is an adult -- clever and wry, he is the picture of emotional arrestment, unable to open himself completely to his black girlfriend, and stalled in his career packaging CD collections for a record label -- the narrative abruptly shifts into the first-person present tense. The result is initially disorienting, though ultimately effective. Where before Lethem's language lured us in, now it pushes us along. It's as if the first half of the book is a memory bank Lethem has transferred to us; when Dylan stops to consider Mingus's Afro pick, which he's saved all these years, we, too, are practically flooded with associations. In the end, the book encapsulates too much to touch on in a book review -- I urge you, go read it -- but more than anything, perhaps, it is both an homage to and caution against memory's tantalizing heft. "Destroy the traces. I'd never tried to do that," Dylan muses toward the end of the book. "Instead I'd lived in their midst for thirty years, oblivious, a blind man fancying himself invisible."

Kate Bolick is the deputy cultural editor of The New York Sun.

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