Excerpt of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
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From Chapter 7
It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life. Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug. The song, that song, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere.
At the very least the song was the soundtrack to your destruction, the theme. Your days reduced to a montage cut to its cowbell beat, inexorable doubled bass line and raunch vocal, a sort of chanted sneer, surrounded by groans of pleasure. The stutter and blurt of what--a tuba? French horn? Rhythm guitar and trumpet, pitched to mockery. The singer might as well have held a gun to your head. How it could have been allowed to happen, how it could have been allowed on the radio? That song ought to be illegal. It wasn't racist-you'll never sort that one out, don't even start-so much as anti-you.
Yes they were dancing, and singing, and movin' to the groovin', and just when it hit me, somebody turned around and shouted--
Every time your sneakers met the street, the end of that summer, somebody was hurling it at your head, that song.
Forget what happens when you start haunting the green-tiled halls of Intermediate School 293.
September 7, 1976, the week Dylan Ebdus began seventh grade in the main building on Court Street and Butler, Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" was the top song on the rhythm and blues charts. Fourteen days later it topped Billboard's pop charts. Your misery's anthem, number-one song in the nation.
Sing it through gritted teeth: WHITE BOY!
Lay down the boogie and play that funky music 'til you die.
When Dylan Ebdus first spotted Arthur Lomb the other boy was feigning pain in the far corner of the schoolyard. At some distance Dylan heard the cries and turned from the entrance of the school to look. Catching sight of Arthur Lomb was like noticing the flight and fall of a bird across a distance of leaf-blurred sky, that flicker at the corner of vision, the abrupt plummeting. Like the flying man too, something Dylan did and didn't wish to have noticed. It occurred at that moment of slippage after the bell had rung and the gym teachers who patrolled the yard had returned inside, ahead of the flood of students, so the yard became a lawless zone, that terrible sudden reframing of space which could happen anywhere, even inside the corridors of the school. Nevertheless it was a clumsy mistake for the boy now cringing on the ground to be caught so far from the yard's entrance, a mistake Dylan felt he couldn't forgive. He wouldn't have forgiven it in himself.
Arthur Lomb fell to his knees and clutched his chest and keened. His words were briefly audible across the depopulating yard.
"I can't breathe!"
Then, each syllable riding a sharp insuck of air, "I!" Pause. "Can't!" Pause. "Breathe!"
Arthur Lomb was pretending asthma or some other weakness. It was an identifiable method: preemptive suffering. Nobody could do much with a kid who was already crying. He'd become useless, untillable soil. He had no spirit to crush and it was faintly disgusting, in poor taste. Anyway, this weirdly gasping kid might not know the rules and talk, tattle to some distant cloddish figure of authority what he imagined had been done to him. He might even be truly sick, fucked up, in pain, who knew? Your only option was to say Dang, white boy, what's your problem? I didn't even touch you. And move on.
Dylan admired the strategy, feeling at once a cool quiver of recognition and a hot bolt of shame. He felt that he was seeing his double, his stand-in. It was at least true that any punishment Arthur Lomb endured was likely otherwise Dylan's, or anyway that a gang of black kids couldn't knock Dylan to the pavement or put him in a yoke at the exact moment they were busy doing it to Arthur Lomb.
Excerpted from The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem Copyright© 2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.