Shortly after Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, settles with his family into a brownstone on a gentrifying Brooklyn block, his mother pushes him out to meet the other children. Though he is unskilled at throwing and catching, Dylan seeks some place in their games, and displays a knack for chalking out the sidewalk courts for skully and hopscotch. Then he invents a variation on skully, chalking two overlapping triangles on the ground. “Nobody understood, nobody played,” Lethem writes. “Dylan wiped the board away but the six heavily chalked points of the star remained etched lightly on the slate to haunt him until the next hard rain.”
This brief moment of budding creativity, unrecognized by anyone else, morphs into secret shame. It also contains a emblem of Dylan’s heritage, one distinct from his black and Hispanic peers. Unlike his white skin, it may not have registered with them.
Lethem does exactly what his hero has done: He flashes his readers a symbol, then leaves only a trace behind. So most reviewers have received The Fortress of Solitude more or less as it’s been marketed, as a coming-of-age novel of race relations and popular music, an urban-contemporary mix of Huckleberry Finn and High Fidelity. A couple of critics have put Lethem in the context of American Jewish literature; James Wood compares Fortress to Call It Sleep, Henry Roth’s modernist monument to his anguished childhood on the streets of New York; in the Austin Chronicle, Shawn Badgley calls it “a 50th-birthday gift to The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow’s recently reissued classic. “Perhaps it goes without saying that the Ebduses are Jewish,” A.O. Scott observed in the Times Book Review. “Actually, it does go without saying until Page 460, where it is mentioned in passing.”
There are, in fact, several other hints along the way, but the passing mention Scott has in mind comes from Abby, the theory-steeped Berkeley graduate student who is the adult Dylan’s live-in girlfriend. “I thought you always said that the fact that you happened to be Jewish was, like, the least defining thing about you,” she challenges him. Abby doesn’t tug on this thread any further, but somebody should, as the burden of his ill-defined Jewishness haunts Dylan arguably as much as does the ghost of Rachel Ebdus (born Abramovitz), who abandons her son in the middle of fifth grade.
Those resistant to this line of argument should consider this: a fictional character doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; the author makes him that way, consciously or not. Moreover, Jewishness hovers enigmatically over Lethem’s earlier work. His 2001 novella This Shape We’re In acknowledges a debt to Franz Kafka—whose allegorical fiction captured assimilated Central European life without having to use the word “Jew”—and Lethem’s contributions to Kafka Americana constitute a parodic homage to a literary hero. Likewise, the hero of Motherless Brooklyn is a Tourettic orphan called Lionel Essrog, whose ancestry is never made explicit but who sounds like he fell out of a 1930s City College yearbook, even though he’s born much later. (An etrog, or citron, is a lemonlike fruit, used in celebrating the holiday of Sukkot.)
If Lethem’s fiction tiptoes around the J word, he has openly discussed his own family background elsewhere. “My mother was Jewish and my father is a WASP from the Midwest,” Lethem told Leonard Lopate in a Salon interview. And in a London Review of Books essay about Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the outspoken Egyptian sociologist and Lethem’s cousin by marriage, he added, “The real religion in our house, though, was a combination of art and protest and utopian internationalist sentiment”—not an uncommon strain of faith among descendants of Eastern European immigrants. Then comes a description of a family trip to the Midwest:
Though in New York City I made a very unconvincing Jew to other Jews—unobservant, un-Bar Mitzvah’d, attending Quaker Sunday school—in Kansas I was hot currency. One of my cousins once walked me down a suburban street in Overland Park, Kansas in order to show me off, though that was a mission of mercy: there was an adopted Jewish kid on the street, shy and ashamed at being the only Jew anyone in the neighborhood knew. He was perhaps seven or eight years old. I was proof that a kid like him could turn into a normal teenager: see, Jews are okay!
Dylan Ebdus never quite gets that message. Like plenty of real-life boys begat by Abrahams and Rachels in those years, he is named for Bob Dylan, who traded in his family name, Zimmerman, to position himself as an American folk poet. [My parents, though not rock fans, took a similar tack; as it happens, Lethem’s little brother is also named Blake.] In the Ebdus home, there’s little evidence of any sort of culture being transmitted, with Rachel gone and Abraham holed up in his painting studio. Nor does the marginal neighborhood his parents embrace in the twilight of the civil rights movement offer much that’s Jewish. At the local school, where Dylan’s streetwise mother proudly sends him in the wake of New York’s “community control” battle (which pitted black activists against the largely Jewish teachers’ union), a white boy is a rarity; he befriends the only other one there, the chess-playing, ethnically ambiguous Arthur Lomb. Despite the constant “yokings,” or shakedowns, that Dylan and Arthur endure because of their skin color, they look to bond with some of the same boys who rob them. One day, Dylan goes along to Samuel J. Underberg’s, a grocers’ supplier which sells especially indelible ink used in graffiti, and where the salesmen wear yarmulkes. The first half of Fortress, which spans Dylan’s childhood, is titled “Underberg,” even though the salesmen appear only as backdrop for an Annie Hall-style joke made by a black teenager. Hearing “Yo man, you hear that? He said Jew want a bag for that?” sparks in Dylan an urge to magically disappear.
Dylan’s refuge is the universe of comic books, which, while undeniably the common property of children of all stripes, is a dream-world conjured up in no small part by the children of Jewish immigrants before World War II. Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has already mined this connection; Lethem has lampooned it himself in his short story “K for Fake” (“See Holocaust Man and his goofy sidekick, Clown Man, defeat Mister Prejudice, Mister Guilt, Mister Tuberculosis, Mister Irony, Mister Paralysis, and Mister Concentration Camp!”). The Fortress of Solitude takes its title from the hideaway of Superman, the brainchild of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jews from Cleveland. In the novel, this goes without saying.
To act out his fantasies of flight and invisibility, Dylan creates a persona called Aeroman, haltingly embodied by Dylan but fully realized by Mingus Rude, a black neighbor who Dylan considers his best friend. Even out of Aeroman garb, Mingus is Dylan’s superhero, protecting him from neighborhood thugs and guiding him through realms of cool (graffiti, pot-smoking, introductory sex) that he couldn’t access alone. While positioned as the book’s co-star, Mingus reads less as Dylan’s equal than a projection of his fantasies, the embodiment of the confidence, invulnerability, and belonging he desires. Their relationship makes the novel yet another variation on the American literary archetype described by Leslie Fiedler in his landmark Partisan Review essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”: an idealized romance between two men, a white outcast and his dark-skinned companion. Just as Jim guides Huck down the Mississippi, Mingus helps Dylan navigate the perils of Gowanus, their benighted neighborhood named for its grimy canal.
Curiously, the Star of David is worn proudly in the Rude household, both by Mingus’ grandfather, a fallen Pentecostal preacher, and his father, a faded soul singer raised in the same church. Later, when Mingus lands in jail, he fills out a form claiming he’s a “Hebrew”; in time, a box of matzo arrives to supplement the Rikers Island provisions. This identification (an ironic one, in Mingus’ case) with the Biblical Hebrews gives Dylan a pretense to claim kinship with the black culture that surrounds him but can never be fully his. Dylan, who adores the drug-addled Barrett Rude Jr. and his gold records while cringing at his own father toiling in artistic obscurity, grows up to be a popular music critic. In his liner notes to a compilation by Barrett’s band, the Subtle Distinctions, Lethem has Dylan call Barrett Rude Jr. and Marvin Gaye, a Seventh-Day Adventist, “weird black jews.”
Why Jews? Seventh-Day Adventists are Christians, but maybe Dylan, raised at a remove from faith, custom, and immigrant ways, can’t tell the difference. In rubbing the Star of David off his own slate, he cedes even the subtle distinction of his heritage to his colorful neighbors.
Eventually, Dylan goes looking for Rachel, his absent mother—his absent Jewish mother—who left Brooklyn with a lover for a hippie commune, then disappeared, alone, into the vastness of America. On the interstate, he thinks about how, “on Rachel’s principles, I’d been pushed out like a blind finger, to probe a nonexistent space.” Since her trail has gone cold, he tries to embrace this emptiness as a hermetic oasis to insulate him from motherlessness and all that’s associated with it.
This is where The Fortress of Solitude fades out. But a vacuum cannot last, and Dylan will again have to grapple with what he has lost but that, in its absence, defines him. What he does next we can only imagine; how Lethem picks up the trail remains to be seen.