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The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel Hardcover – September 16, 2003

3.8 out of 5 stars 153 customer reviews

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Intrusion: A Novel
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

If there still remains any doubt, this novel confirms Lethem's status as the poet of Brooklyn and of motherless boys. Projected through the prism of race relations, black music and pop art, Lethem's stunning, disturbing and authoritatively observed narrative covers three decades of turbulent events on Dean Street, Brooklyn. When Abraham and Rachel Ebdus arrive there in the early 1970s, they are among the first whites to venture into a mainly black neighborhood that is just beginning to be called Boerum Hill. Abraham is a painter who abandons his craft to construct tiny, virtually indistinguishable movie frames in which nothing happens. Ex-hippie Rachel, a misguided liberal who will soon abandon her family, insists on sending their son, Dylan, to public school, where he stands out like a white flag. Desperately lonely, regularly attacked and abused by the black kids ("yoked," in the parlance), Dylan is saved by his unlikely friendship with his neighbor Mingus Rude, the son of a once-famous black singer, Barnett Rude Jr., who is now into cocaine and rage at the world. The story of Dylan and Mingus, both motherless boys, is one of loyalty and betrayal, and eventually different paths in life. Dylan will become a music journalist, and Mingus, for all his intelligence, kindness, verbal virtuosity and courage, will wind up behind bars. Meanwhile, the plot manages to encompass pop music from punk rock to rap, avant-garde art, graffiti, drug use, gentrification, the New York prison system-and to sing a vibrant, sometimes heartbreaking ballad of Brooklyn throughout. Lethem seems to have devoured the '70s, '80s and '90s-inhaled them whole-and he reproduces them faithfully on the page, in prose as supple as silk and as bright, explosive and illuminating as fireworks. Scary and funny and seriously surreal, the novel hurtles on a trajectory that feels inevitable. By the time Dylan begins to break out of the fortress of solitude that has been his life, readers have shared his pain and understood his dreams.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Dylan Ebdus is a white kid on a black-and-brown street. As he struggles through public school in 1970s Brooklyn, he is "yoked"--put in a headlock--and frisked for change on a daily basis. Testing into a good Manhattan school, he steps into a long-lasting role: vulnerable among street kids, he's street-smart compared to his new, privileged pals, and loathes himself as a poseur with both crowds. When he finds a ring that grants the power of flight, he's afraid to use it, but his black friend, Mingus, is not. They try their hand at crime fighting, but like many teenage endeavors, the project fizzles out. Lethem is a tremendous writer, and in the first half he uses magnificent language to capture the complexity of a child's worldview. When he jump-cuts to Dylan's adulthood, however, his switch to a more conventional narrative style is disappointing. The story regains momentum when Dylan rediscovers the ring and a new power it offers, then returns to his old street and ponders a sacrifice: whether to give the ring to the boy who yoked him the most. 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. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (September 16, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385500696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385500692
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (153 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #705,564 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sarah Kowalski on May 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
For the past couple of years, when my fiancé has been asked his opinion about a book, he's often been replying, "It was really good -- but not as good as Fortress of Solitude." (Books he's said this about: Kavalier and Clay, Everything is Illuminated, and Motherless Brooklyn, for example.) So I finally got around to reading it, and I have a feeling I'm going to be saying the same thing for quite some time. I absolutely loved this book; as soon as I finished the last page (breathless and in tears), I wanted to flip back to page one and start again, just so I could keep living in the world I'd been sharing with Lethem's characters for the last few weeks. (And I would have, but my fiancé's got first dibs on re-reading.)

A number of reviewers have complained that this book is slow, and I don't disagree. Fortress of Solitude is absolutely not a plot-driven book -- you won't be desperately flipping the pages to follow the characters through their adventures, skimming ahead to find out who lives or dies or what the next twist will be -- at least not often. The only other Lethem I've read is Motherless Brooklyn, which was essentially a murder mystery, so the two books differ greatly in their pacing and structure. If you loved Motherless Brooklyn, as I did, you may be surprised by how different the two books are. But the slow, descriptive, poetic quality of Fortress of Solitude was, in my view, its greatest strength.

Dylan Ebdus is the main character of this book, but its real subject, I think, is not so much Dylan as it is Brooklyn. This is a book about childhood and the process of growing up, and about a country and a neighborhood changing over the course of 30 years, more than it is a book about particular events in its characters' lives.
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Format: Hardcover
There are some beautiful moments in the Fortress of Solitude--moments of crystalline description, of poetic evocation of time and place, moments of heartbreaking human interaction. But for me, these moments just didn't hold together long enough or happen often enough.
The novel follows Dylan Ebdus, known as "whiteboy" to those around him on Dean Street due to the rarity of his skin color, as he grows up and out of the Brooklyn neighborhood. While we see Dylan from five through middle-age, most of the book focuses on his young teen years and especially his friendship with Mingus Rude, a friendship which goes on and off through the years. Both boys are motherless. Dylan's liberal-minded mother has left him to his painter father who has given up a promising artist career to work obsessively on an abstract painting on film while Mingus lives with his father, Barret Junior--a once-famous singer who spirals into drugs and obscurity. Both fathers threaten to take their children down with them, both father try to rise out of their depths.
Other main characters include another young white boy even further down the junior and high school hierarchy than Dylan and a street tough who is a running physical and psychological threat to Dylan over the years.
Many have lauded the evocation of 1970's Brooklyn--the poetic recreation of that world of stickball and skully and comic books and stoopball and gentrification. And there is, as mentioned, some truly amazing writing put to that purpose. But for all the loving detail, it never felt intimate enough to evoke much feeling to me.
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By A Customer on October 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book is everything in the kitchen sink and more. It lacks narrative structure, fluidity, restraint, cohesion. It seems Lethem found himself drowning in material and lost focus. The second half of the book falls completely to pieces. The choices the author made verge on the ludicrous. Critics may call it post-modern, but post-modern is not synonymous with messy. Sure Lethem mixes genres, but is that really a virtue? Only if the result stands on its own as something unique and compelling, and this does not. The book does hold together and does not deserve the praise its been getting. The excerpt in the New Yorker was the best part. Read that and save yourself the expense of buying the book.
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Format: Paperback
Boy, I was expecting to really like this book, going into it. The first few pages are packed full of excerpts from gushing reviews from all kinds of reputable sources. Not to mention that it promised to be a book about Brooklyn, graffiti tagging, comic books ... what's not to like, right? Well, unfortunately, in the end I found it merely "OK" and at times downright trying to trudge through.

Though others have described The Fortress of Solitude as "ambitious," "poetic," and all sorts of other grandiose adjectives, as I read it I saw it a little differently. To me it was a book trying desperately to be ambitious, struggling to rise to the level of poetry while being saddled with a writer who, unfortunatley, doesn't quite have the tools yet.

Lethem's prose is full of overblown similes and metaphors that just don't fit with the subject matter. Overall his style gives this otherwise gritty, urban novel the histrionic tone of a period romance. Time and time again I was pulled out of my enjoyment of the narrative by his hamfisted attempts at "great writing," seemingly unaware that great writing is more than just a coat of paint that you can slap onto a book to wow the crowd.

For me, though, this book's worst sin was in being that particularly unpleasant pill to swallow: a thinly-diguised memoir written by a white male in his late 20s to early 30s. I absolutely despised David Egger's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and when this book started to veer into that territory it almost succeeded in making me hate it, too. Almost.

A word of advice to future late 20s, early 30s writers: Nobody cares about your life. They don't care because you haven't actually done anything yet worth hearing about.
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