Summary and book reviews of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

The Fortress of Solitude

by Jonathan Lethem

The Fortress of Solitude
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2003, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2004, 560 pages

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Book Summary

'A vibrant, sometimes heartbreaking ballad of Brooklyn...prose as supple as silk and as bright, explosive and illuminating as fireworks.'

This is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. They are friends and neighbors, but because Dylan is white and Mingus is black, their friendship is not simple. This is the story of their Brooklyn neighborhood, which is almost exclusively black despite the first whispers of something that will become known as "gentrification."

This is the story of 1970s America, a time when the most simple human decisions—what music you listen to, whether to speak to the kid in the seat next to you, whether to give up your lunch money—are laden with potential political, social and racial disaster. This is the story of 1990s America, when no one cared anymore.

This is the story of punk, that easy white rebellion, and crack, that monstrous plague. This is the story of the loneliness of the avant-garde artist and the exuberance of the graffiti artist.

This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: They would screw up their lives.

This is the story of joyous afternoons of stickball and dreaded years of schoolyard extortion. This is the story of belonging to a society that doesn't accept you. This is the story of prison and of college, of Brooklyn and Berkeley, of soul and rap, of murder and redemption.

This is the story Jonathan Lethem was born to tell. This is The Fortress of Solitude.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why has Jonathan Lethem titled his novel The Fortress of Solitude? Where does the phrase come from? In what ways is Dylan Ebdus a solitary child? In what ways does he live inside a fortress?

  2. What does The Fortress of Solitude reveal about the dynamics of childhood friendships? What kind of friendship does Dylan have with Mingus Rude? With Arthur Lomb? Why does Dylan want so badly to be accepted by Mingus?

  3. The Fortress of Solitude is a realistic novel, except for one fantastic element: the magic ring that enables its wearer to fly and to become invisible. Why has Lethem included the ring in the story? What effect does it have on Dylan? How is the ring crucial to the plot of the novel?

  4. When Mingus asks Dylan if "...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times - A O Scott

The Fortress of Solitude is crowded beyond my powers of summary with lessons, insights, facts, dates, song titles and minor characters.

Time magazine

Amazing...Lethem grabs and captures 1970s New York City...in a glorious, chaotic, raw novel.

O, The Oprah Magazine

A marvelous achievement, An important as well as dazzling book.

The Chicago Tribune

A stylish meditation. It may be the strongest attempt in fiction to deal with the racial divides and the reality of city life since The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The New York Observer

Heartbreaking, hilarious, astonishing-the entire arsenal of easy exclamations, only this time all true.

Library Journal - Nathan Ward

This flawed but daring work is recommended for all general collections.

Kirkus Reviews

... the story, weighed down, ceases to soar. Still, though, terrifically entertaining a fine, rich, thoughtful novel from one of our best writers. Play that funky music, white boy.

Publishers Weekly

Scary and funny and seriously surreal, the novel hurtles on a trajectory that feels inevitable.

Booklist - Keir Graff

Lethem explores many avenues the origins of gentrification, the development of soul music, the genealogy of graffiti, the seeds of the crack epidemic. The different concepts converge in the closing pages, but this often-excellent novel labors under the weight of its ambition.

Author Blurb Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys
Lethem has done a number of things here, any one of which is impossible for any but the very finest novelists. He has vividly and lovingly and truthfully, through thrilling evocation of its music, its popular culture, its street games, argot, pharmacology, social mores and racial politics, recreated a world, a moment in history that I would have thought lost and irrecoverable. He has created, in young Dylan, a genuine literary hero. He has reinvented and reinvigorated the myths of the superhero, of black-white relations, of New York City itself. But most of all, from my point of view, he captures precisely-as only a great novelist can-how it feels to love the world that is, on a daily basis, kicking your ass.

Author Blurb Paula Fox, author of Desperate Characters and Borrowed Finery
The Fortress of Solitude is luminous, stinging with truth and life. A story of two boys, a Brooklyn story, an American story that gives in its very specificity the force of the universal.

Author Blurb Richard Russo
The Fortress of Solitude is a grim, brave, soaring American masterpiece.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle
Wondrous and sweeping, this story evokes perfectly the nuances of friendship and the often odd arrangement called family. The drum of loss beats poignantly beneath the surface, as this tale moves from the streets of Brooklyn to the West Coast and back, presenting us the with baffling and tender gift of acceptance.

Reader Reviews

Dan Salmon

Something about the raw honesty of this book, its willingness to explore the flaws and strengths of ALL of it's key characters, it's ability to explain these character flaws, biographically, without necessarily excusing them, or even judging them (...   Read More

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