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 Fortress of Solitude 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 age 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 fathers 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 constant 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 some truly amazing writing put to that purpose. But for all the loving detail, it never felt intimate enough to evoke much feeling. Some of the pop references felt like set pieces or throw-away time markers, some sections were overly long and others not long enough, some had powerful emotive effects (the section of skully for instance) and others seemed recitation of cold descriptive facts.
Part of the problem was that the characters never truly felt fully-formed or real, especially Mingus, so I cared even less about the setting. A lot of time is spent on early Dylan to good effect but he starts to pale as a character as the book goes on and is not particularly likable or interesting as an adult. Mingus is too often too removed (both literally and figuratively) and therefore too many of the character “tags” associated with him — graffiti, drug use, drug dealing — have the feel of cliche rather than character development. The other white boy, Arthur, I found too often simply unbelievable in his speech, which was too bad since it was a distraction from his actions, which could have had much more of an emotional impact had I accepted him as a person.
The magical-realism part involving a ring which can supposedly make the wearer fly or invisible (among other powers) feels a bit forced and uneven; it intervenes clumsily at times, more effectively at others. The same is true of the comic book motif which moves from painfully belabored to beautifully evocative of desire, loneliness, despair, and power.
Overall, The Fortress of Solitude just didn’t hold together for me. It was too episodic in nature without adding up to a whole greater than its parts and the characters were just not fully formed enough for me to care despite the plot’s weaknesses and uneven pace. The best section for me was the middle, past the first 100 pages or so. I was tempted several times in those first 100 to put it down, and even more so once Dylan moved into his older teens and on to college and adulthood, but the potential and the occasional gem of a sentence or paragraph or several pages would keep me going through the next rough patch. Ultimately though, the strengths of The Fortress of Solitude were overshadowed by its weaknesses and I finished unsure if I would have been better off giving into the temptation to quit earlier.