In 1970s Brooklyn, two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, share a complex friendship that crosses the racial divide. Growing up in a black Brooklyn neighborhood, they experiment with the acts of defiance typical of their race and era: the easy white rebellion of punk on the one hand and the monstrous plague of crack on the other, the loneliness of avant-garde art and the exuberance of graffiti. As the '70s fade to the '90s, their neighborhood becomes gentrified, political acts give way to apathy, and the stakes of their lives grow higher. Lethem takes his heroes from their obsession with comic books, joyful afternoons of stickball, and dreaded years of schoolyard extortion to college and prison, Berkeley and a transformed Brooklyn, rap and soul, murder and redemption.
The Fortress of Solitude is crowded beyond my powers of summary with lessons, insights, facts, dates, song titles and minor characters. But I much prefer its mess and sprawl to the tightly wound intellectual parlor tricks of earlier Lethem novels like As She Climbed Across the Table and Girl in Landscape. The fictional (Barrett Rude, Abraham Ebdus) is squeezed in alongside the actual (Marvin Gaye, Stan Brakhage), and the naturalistic geography of a borough Lethem knows like the back of his hand is illuminated by a daub of magic realism, when Dylan and Mingus come into possession of a ring that gives them super powers. A.O.Scott