The failure of the critical establishment to seize on this theme illuminates those dark racial corners where both critics and the culture at large still fear to tread. Melanie Rehak’s review in The Nation, in which the word “race” appears only once outside of quotes, is typical of the books reception. To mention that the book dealt with race was enough — no need for the critic to endanger themselves or their readers by engaging just what Lethem had to say about the matter. And what Lethem did say was indeed dangerous.
The Fortress of Solitude is an exploration into the much charted but still murky racial grounds where the arch identities of Black and White duel, romance, and hide their essential condition. Lethem, to his credit, shuns sociology, and creates enough vital truth in his fiction to penetrate and immerse us in the lives of his characters so that when race breathes into them and their environment we too feel it breathe into our individual and collective selves.
My own Brooklyn upbringing shares much with that of both Lethem and his protagonist Dylan, and this probably affords me greater insight into the more coded and provincial facets of his work. But background alone can’t account for the blindness of so many reviewers to the book’s overarching racial element. And this is no personal or esoteric theme — the obsession with race is visible everywhere across the cultural landscape, written with the bold imprint of a graffiti burner. To ignore it can only be a willful act. When Lethem writes, “under oblivious eyes the invisible autographed the world,” he describes his own endeavor.
Dylan Ebdus, the novel’s hero, is borne by bohemian parents — an artist father and a former Brooklyn street kid-turned-radical mother — into Dean street, a one block stretch in 1970s Brooklyn. During his early years Dylan’s neighborhood Gowanus, a black and Puerto Rican enclave is fitfully gentrifying and being remade into Boerum Hill. Though Boerum lacks a hill, the title links it to places like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, as a community for the bourgeois whites of newly revitalizing Brooklyn. Dylan’s mother protests this gentrification, whereby refurbished boarding houses become townhouses, street life gives way to parlor culture, and dark faces disappear so lighter ones can feel comfortable, even as her family’s presence portends and encourages its coming. The first half of the book — its crucial arc — is the story of Dylan’s childhood, the reinventions of his home and himself, and his entry into the world where pools of black and white spill into each other in patterns of mystery, cruelty and empathy.
Rachel, Dylan’s socially conscious mother, tries to mold him in her own image — at ease in any situation, unburdened by racial and class anxieties. Her advice to Dylan in dealing with Brooklyn’s rougher elements is to be “wilder than they are, wear flames in your hair, that’s my recommendation.” To this end she ushers him as the sole white kid into his block’s black scene, and brags to her friends that he is one of only three whites at the local public school. Initially pining for the blonde girls in roller skates that he feels are his birthright, Dylan stays on the margins of his block’s activities. Inept at the various games and rituals of his peers, he is not an outsider but an outlier.
Dylan’s induction into Brooklyn and its rites is not accomplished by gaining the acceptance of local kids or, as his mother wishes, by becoming tough enough to walk his own way. He earns his entry by resigning himself to the role of whiteboy, given to him personally by his peers and anonymously by his circumstances. The whiteboy is not only a perpetual mark to be taken by tougher kids, but the familiar imposition of a generic type on a rough edged individual. By prescribing behavior without regard for a persons inner content the role breeds dissonance and double consciousness.
Dylan accepts the part both from weakness and from a sense that he deserves it for the privilege and sins of his color. Only by rehearsing his own victimhood to the point where he can act out his part can he be integrated into Gowanus’ drama with some degree of safety. Robert Woolfolk, a black kid from the projects who arrives on Dean Street without notice bearing an omen of violence, is the crucial figure in Dylan’s inauguration as a whiteboy. Unlike the other black and Puerto Rican kids on Dylan’s relatively peaceful block, Robert is not just poor but ghetto. He lacks the guiding constraints of family and community that keep the other kids in check and afford some of them promising futures.
Describing Robert’s entrance into a round of stoopball Lethem’s narrator observes that “another kid could ask to join a ball game, Robert Woolfolk had to hustle in. His basic premise was criminal. It wasn’t something he could leave behind when it happened to be unnecessary.” It is Robert who first introduces Dylan to the ”yoke”, a sort of racial mugging that still existed as recently as my own youth unchanged in practice but renamed “herbing”. A yoke is a demand made by black kids for a white kid’s things, enforced by the threat of violence and the deeper threat of exposing the white kid as a racist. Here is Lethem’s account of how yoking figures in Dylan’s youth:
He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by who once the headlock popped loose and three of four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. … He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theater. “Nobody hurt you man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?” They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they highfived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow.Dylan is yoked by any number of kids during his childhood and its premise burrows deep within his psyche, becoming the existential emblem of his youth and the specter that haunts his later years.
In his review of The Fortress of Solitude in The New Republic, James Wood cites the passage above as an example of Lethem’s weakness for “over-articulate explanation”. Wood goes on to assert that crucial point to be taken from the yoking episode is Lethem’s “ability to seize at once the knowingness and the inexperience of children.” He finally reproves Lethem for “insisting on telling us what we might divine anyway—that this is light street theater.”
This is comically misguided. Wood takes the novel’s central, recurring metaphor, which ought to shock with it’s distillation of the violent racial energy that powers the entire story, and dismisses it with hardly a mention of race. Considering Wood’s reproach of Lethem it is ironic that he still missed the point even as it was “over-explained” in this line where the motivations of the yokers is spelled out: “We yoke you for thinking that we might: in your eyes we see that you come pre-yoked.”
It’s depressing to see one of our greatest literary critics explicate only the most formalist, literary aspects of a passage that offers real humanity, pathos and social resonance. I use Wood as an example not because his review is particularly unique or egregious in its failings — it is not — but to show how even our best critics seemed unable to face the book’s racial themes head-on. Lethem has stared so unflinchingly at race that critics ought to have been able to return his gaze.
The power of the yoke lies not in what it shares with the rote mechanics of robbery, but in the dynamics of its racial blackmail, which corrupt all involved. A simple mugging becomes a yoke only when black boys make a whiteboy complicit in his own victimization with an unspoken threat, the tortured logic of which is that they are the real victims of his fear that they will mug him. Despite the idealism of Dylan’s parents they could not convince their neighbors that they were trying to join the community, ideological credentials never distinguish Dylan on the street. He is just a dumb kid who deserves to get yoked, according to his yokers, for encroaching on Gowanus when he has the whole white world that he can lay claim to.
When Lethem compares yoking to theater or writes that “the whole event [was] a quotation of itself,” he is invoking not only the drama of the actions but the tentative choreography of the actors. Just as Dylan was being taught his role by the black kids robbing him, they were trying on their own roles. Dylan’s inclusion was necessary partly for the benefits of rehearsing with all the leads present. By assenting to the yoke he tightened its future performance. Similarly, when Dylan was casually dismissed at the incident’s conclusion, or warned from making too big a deal of it, the purpose was not only to intimidate him into silence, but to ease the conscience of his assailants, still unsure in their identity as aggrieved predators. They encourage Dylan to brush off the episode so that they can do the same, and demure from acknowledging that they were doing anything more than having a little fun.
To be a young black boy and one day discover that you wield a power over whiteboys, whether or not you choose to exercise it, is a sticky piece of knowledge to dislodge. It is not a far stretch from recognizing that a latent fear indicts you, a fear that you have done nothing to provoke, to deciding that this fear enables you — or even licenses you — to exploit it. At some point a black kid realizes the power of his blackness, and a white kid the yoke of his whiteness. What the pair does not yet see is that the hierarchy of their youth is both an historical inversion and also often an abjectly ironic projection of their respective futures. The crossing channels of race blurring who is owed what from whom, breeding a false determinism that fulfills its own invented prophecies—these are the sources of double consciousness that assail Dylan and his partners in the Brooklyn street.
Everything changes for Dylan with the arrival of Mingus Rude. One day in the summer of Dylan’s youth, Barret Rude Jr., a famous black soul singer on the wane, moves in next door. Barret puts his royalties toward keeping his new brownstone full of cocaine and paranoia, which leaves little room for his son Mingus, a boy of Dylan’s age. Seeing her chance to integrate Dylan into Brooklyn and blackness, Dylan’s mother longingly predicts that he and Mingus will become best friends. And they do. The story of their friendship, its secrets, betrayals and resonance in Dylan’s imagination, forms the story’s Rosetta Stone, without which nothing else can be rightly understood.
Lethem’s impressionistic portraits, rendering their subjects in lucid, beautiful passages, received their due praise from most reviewers. But his power to conjure images and evocations of even the most personal and seemingly inexpressible wonders of childhood and Brooklyn obscured for his critics the narrative ends for which these talents were applied. The breathy romance of much of the book’s first half is not only a means to elicit a nostalgic picture of Brooklyn in the 70s, but a spell cast to make the reader see in Mingus what Dylan sees: A superhero’s myth and lore with the key to all the secrets of the city.
Mingus, nicknamed “the million dollar kid” for the money his father paid to win custody from his now absent white mother, is — initially, at least — as much an outsider and gentrifier as Dylan and his family. In the boys’ first encounter, Mingus models the Boy Scout uniform that he has brought from the Philadelphia suburbs while Dylan silently wishes to warn him not to expose such enticingly vulnerable artifacts to their harsh environs:
He wished to protect them both by commanding the new boy never to bring any of these madly fertile and irrelevant obsessions out on the block for any other kid to see…Dylan wanted Mingus Rude and himself to build a fire and smother the uniforms in damp smoke until the plastic blackened and melted, until the numbers and names, the evidence, was destroyed.But without any perceptible break, Dylan’s role of protector becomes a farce as Mingus — due in part to his blackness or half-blackness — fast gains the acceptance of the other kids in the neighborhood and displays a native’s ease with the esoteric practices that are the tests for inclusion. Drawn out of isolation by a growing fascination with the elusive character of Mingus, Dylan forgets his furtive yearning for the comforts of a white milieu and follows Mingus into the avenues of black Brooklyn. He becomes attuned to the enthralling, nascent world of hip hop and graffiti. The art of “tagging,” or drawing an assumed moniker on public spaces, becomes the pivotal act of their friendship.
In Dylan’s eyes, Mingus, despite his more recent arrival, owns New York in a way that he never can. And life in New York, especially for the young, is often a contest of ownership. My stoop, my block, my neighborhood, my subway car, my subway seat, my turn to speak, my right to stare at you and enter your conversation uninvited. This is petty territoriality, of course, but also the invention and inflation of identity. To know the city best is to take from it anything you wish, to conflate your own narrow individuality with its epic stature.
The underground worlds of New York, hip hop chief among them, are not built from nothing, but constructed by a set of abstract relations on the actual, physical city. Sub-cultures, as such, are really superstructures, inventions held aloft by the shared belief and active participation of their followers in grounding them to what readily exists. Only in Mingus’ presence can Dylan navigate through the city’s anonymous landmarks and understand, if not fully participate in, their existence. In one of the novel’s most perfect and quoted passages Mingus leads Dylan from the edge of Brooklyn to the verge of Manhattan, over the bridge:
They circled under the onramp to find stone stairs up into the sunlight of the bridge’s walkway, then started across, over the river, traffic howling in the cages at their feet, the gray clotted sky clinging to the bridge’s veins, Manhattan’s dinosaur spine rotating into view as they mounted the great curve above the river… They halted two-thirds across. On the cast tower planted at Manhattan’s mouth were two lavish word-paintings, red and white and green and yellow sprayed fantastically high in the rough stone, edges bled in geological texture. The first read MONO, the second LEE, syllables drained of meaning, like Mingus’s Dose. Dylan understood what Mingus wanted him to see. The painted names had conquered the bridge, pinned it to the secret street, claimed it for Brooklyn.To write on the bridge was to re-form its meaning and to read it was to be initiated into the culture of that meaning. To claim the Brooklyn Bridge for Brooklyn was a heroic feat, known only to the partisans who could recognize their conquering flag.
Paired with Mingus, Dylan gains some access to the avenues of black life in Brooklyn, and takes a few shaky steps toward adopting the speech and dress, but no amount of immersion makes him any less a whiteboy. It is a stigma he cannot shake and an immutable message, broadcast against his will, of where and with whom he belongs. Entering junior high Dylan’s hopes that Mingus will protect him from being yoked are shattered. Mingus disappears, retreating further into himself and into the petty crime and delinquency of the neighborhood, in which Robert Woolfolk becomes his partner. Privately, Dylan feels that Mingus has abandoned him, breeding a resentment that festers for decades.
To make matters worse, Dylan becomes friends with Arthur Lomb, his school’s other whiteboy, with whom he is paired against his will. Dylan’s friendship with the bookish, implicitly Jewish Arthur, the only kid in his neighborhood who makes him seem tough by contrast, is not only a danger — two chumps make a more visible target than one — but an affront to his mother’s egalitarianism and his own attempt to dissolve his differences with Mingus in a larger, shared belonging. In the cruelest turn, Dylan can not avoid the fact that he and Arthur share not only race, but sensibility. Playing chess, making knowing references to comic books and pop culture, they affirm that their otherness is deeper than their skin. At the time Dylan still does not understand and thus takes no consolation from the fact that the difference between his new friend and his black friends has more to do with their parents’ respective class, character and backgrounds than the gleaming salience of their whiteness.
Arthur, despite or because of his nerdiness, wishes to be cool and accepted. When Dylan, with secret, possessive pride, introduces Arthur to Mingus, it doesn’t take long for Arthur to ingratiate himself with a buffoonish mimicry of blackness that eventually includes a friendship with Robert Woolfolk. Unwilling to join in Arthur’s minstrelsy and incapable of reclaiming Mingus for himself Dylan follows along uneasily as an outsider among his own friends.
One of the book’s most telling details, never commented on by Lethem or his reviewers, is Mingus’ bi-racial identity. Mulatto Mingus becomes the balance point between Robert, Arthur and Dylan—the patois through which they can all communicate. It is Mingus, with his background in the Boy Scouts, and not Arthur, who first introduces Dylan to the hermetically cool world of comic books. It is Mingus again who is able to calmly talk Robert out of yoking Dylan. And it is the same Mingus, Dylan’s best friend, from whom a white woman tries to save him when they wander into the wealthy precinct of Brooklyn Heights. When this young mother sees the two boys together, she can only assume that Dylan has strayed from the safety of one of the local private schools and is now being threatened by the borough’s dark side. Her intrusion forces on Dylan the knowledge that he can’t fully belong anywhere. He is too poor and marginal for white gentility, to weak and intellectual for white-ethnic toughness, and too brightly lit to pass unnoticed in black company. By trying to rescue him she has proven to both Mingus and himself that the anonymous eyes under which they pass will never see them as brothers, the way Dylan wishes them to be seen.
Far later in the book, his adolescent awkwardness behind him, it becomes clear that although he can never be convincingly black, it is no great feat for Dylan to be white and pass in that culture. For now though, while that revelation remains distant, its eventuality is begun by Dylan’s retreat from his neighborhood and its people. The road out of Brooklyn leads him first into Manhattan, where he attends the city’s most elite public school, later to the country’s most expensive private college in the lily white preserve of Vermont, and finally to California.
It’s fitting that a book about the recondite mysteries of Brooklyn and the underworlds of childhood is rife with coded allusions and clues for its own concealed insights. As with race, most reviewers merely mention these recurring symbols without probing them for meaning. Most significant among them, the nexus wherein Dylan’s comic book fantasies collide with his neighborhood’s realities, is a magical ring that grants its wearer superpowers that change not only with time and place, but according to its user. Bequeathed to Dylan by a homeless, gin soaked black man, Aaron X. Doily, the ring is given with the cryptic admonition that Doily can no longer use it to fly because he “can’t fight the airwaves.”
Aeroman is the superhero Dylan invents to use the powers of the ring, an alter-ego that he allows Mingus to share just as Mingus had shared his graffiti identity with Dylan. When they are together, their identities merged, they have only one purpose for Aeroman, but apart they put the ring towards sharply divergent ends. The shared role for Aeroman involves Dylan luring toughs into confronting him so that Mingus can swoop down and scare them off. Despite their brazen use of the ring’s superpowers Dylan and Mingus never fear being caught or revealed, they trust that in Brooklyn, “These streets always make room for two or three figures alone in struggle, as in a forest, unheard. The stoops lean away from the street, the distance between row houses widens to a mute canyon.” On the same register that he had been yoked, too low to sound in adult society, Dylan is able to enact his vengeance undetected.
Alone, Mingus uses the ring to accomplish two crucial acts as Aeroman that illustrate the wrenching ambivalence of his condition. When he jumps a group of drug dealers outside the nearby projects we are left to wonder whether the motive of the robbery is to feed his growing addiction or to rage against it and its facilitators. In his ultimate use of the ring, Mingus burns his tag in towering characters on the side of the Brooklyn House of Detention. Autographing the emblem of his future imprisonment, he is, at once, defacing and claiming his fate.
Dylan’s last act before first leaving Brooklyn for Vermont is to buy back the ring from Mingus, to whom he had entrusted it. Desperate for money to bankroll a drug venture with Arthur and Robert, Mingus sells the ring back. Both of them are bitterly aware that the transaction is Dylan’s way of proving that he can buy out of Brooklyn and their friendship.
While for Mingus, the ring’s sole attribute is flight, Dylan (who can only use it to fly only in the presence of other white people or when alone and outside of Brooklyn) can also use it at times to become invisible in a way that seems to change not so much his racial identity as his identity in relation to race. Mostly, Dylan flies while in Vermont, described by Mingus as “Ver-mont, where the girls go swimming without any clothes and niggers work in gas stations,” and the only place in which Dylan makes an outward show of his Brooklyness. Parodying the street talk and hustle of Mingus, he plays a safe-to-the-touch nigger for the amusement of his rich, white college friends. Aeroman is a way for Dylan to play superman in solitude or to act out the racial grievances that he can’t own up to without an alternate identity. Pretenses of heroism aside, Dylan initially uses the ring only to settle his personal scores.
When critics pondered Lethem’s central conceit, a ring that can confer invisibility on its wearer, is it proper that only one thought to mention Ralph Ellison? Would that have been too obvious? Perhaps Henry Roth and Jonathan Franzen were more clever, more literary comparisons. Nor do the echoes of Ellison end with the ring. As the book’s coda pined for “middle spaces,” was there no reviewer who thought of “lower frequencies”? Whether or not Lethem intended these shades of “Invisible Man” is irrelevant. Had the novel been considered for what it was, a study of race and American identity, rather than a conventional bildungsroman about the pains of maturation, it is impossible to imagine that so few would have picked up on such clear parallels with Ellison. The fact that these analogies were ignored is evidence either that the book was universally misread or that its reviewers skimmed over the vast racial swamp that gives the story its mass to attend to the garden of lesser themes at its edges.
The novel loses its power and momentum once Dylan leaves Brooklyn, as Lethem wanders through superfluous plot lines that he affords too much attention and significance. In its final arc the book switches to the first person and Dylan, as an adult rock critic on the West Coast, treats us to a fight with his black girlfriend. But the girlfriend is less a character than a narrative device through which Lethem calls Dylan out on the interwoven strands of blackness and childhood that still bind him.
Haunted by their friendship and its loss, Dylan sees that Mingus is the key to understanding himself. All these years later, he is still kept in a headlock by his memories of being yoked, and the meaning of the yoke itself. To break out he goes to see Mingus, now being held in a Watertown prison that also houses Robert Woolfolk. Before Dylan arrives at the prison, the narrative is interrupted by a neutrally voiced chronicle of how Mingus wound up there. We learn of his descent into crack use with its mounting debasements and routinized jail time, and the purposeless survival that has become his existence.
Dylan brings the ring to Mingus so that its powers can be used to free him, but before he offers it he exhumes the two buried questions that he has spent all these years carrying in silence: Did Mingus know that he was getting yoked all the time? Did Mingus ever yoke a whiteboy? Which are Dylan’s crude way of asking if they are brothers, and if so how could his brother have abandoned him to such cruelty. That Mingus answers yes to both questions does not stop Dylan from offering the ring, and in doing so he implicitly obviates the question of who was owed a reckoning by whom. Where was Dylan when Mingus needed him? In Vermont, degrading him for cheap laughs. Dylan’s pain from his yokings and his shame at allowing them without a fight had crippled his empathy, which he was only now slowly regaining.
In defying one’s image as a willing victim it is dangerously easy to become louder than necessary and brasher than appropriate, adopting a posture that is too aggressive to pass as a defensive measure—a false indifference to race based on staring at it past the point of decency. Dylan’s tortured position is not quite like this: Rather than becoming hostile, he’s shrunken into a shell of callousness.
Earlier in the novel, just before Dylan retakes the ring and leaves Brooklyn, Dylan’s father relates his own encounter with Mingus:
“He didn’t look so well to me,” said Abraham.Here is the moral dead end, when one day out of a specious bid at self-assertion you refuse a dollar to a black man who actually needs it because you can no longer parse the difference between a request and a demand — and worse, that black man is your best friend.
“When I asked he laughed it off, only suggested I give him a dollar.”
“Did you do it?”
“You got yoked, dad.”
Trapped in a stunted mindset in which he still expected Mingus to protect him, Dylan ignored the reversal of their roles in the adult world where it was he who should have tried to protect Mingus. In the end Mingus, resigned to his condition, refuses the ring and it is Dylan who escapes the prison. But not before he obliges Mingus’ request and sneaks the ring to Robert. When Robert tries to use the ring to break out, it fails to grant him flight, as it always had, and he is killed without ever breaching the prison’s walls. The fact that Dylan on Mingus’ behest gives Robert, his enemy the arch-yoker, the tool of his own demise – and the question of whether Mingus does so willfully – are left unresolved for the reader to consider. Although the book goes on for a few more pages, this is the real conclusion: Dylan finding Mingus and confronting the imbalance between their inseparable fates.
The Fortress of Solitude is a profound achievement, but it is not without considerable faults. First there is Lethem’s penchant for wordiness and overdescription. This sin is real but inseparable from the book’s overall style. Lethem’s gift as a writer, and one of his themes, is naming things – particularly those that are left nameless out of fear of acknowledging their nature. The style is a detriment only when, having already crystallized an idea or image, Lethem persists in stringing on further, needless adjectives that shroud the subject’s clarity. At its worst, this tendency reduces genuine reflection to flaccid paraphrase, but its strengths underpin the book’s vivid expressiveness.
More significant than crowded prose is the abundance of secondary themes and storylines that threaten to obscure the thrust of the narrative. Distractions from the book’s perilous guiding venture, they offer the comforts of conventionality and well marked escape routes along the curve of its plot. Forays into comic book conventions and screenplays, like the scattered allusions to Dylan’s mother, are meaningless without relation to the overarching drama between Dylan and Mingus. It is partly Lethem’s own fault that his reviewers could treat race as a single, if larger, point in a constellation of themes rather than the planetary center that holds even the smallest mote in its gravity.
Having made my point, let me step back and say that the book is not all about race. A mark of its worth as a novel is that it arranges disparate voices in a cacophony that evokes the sheer effusive variety of life. Fortress offers many pivotal story lines which I never address at all, some of these lines are powerful, others less so, none should be criticized for failing to hew to the racial themes if they could stand alone. But the story itself, the passion and conviction with which it is told and its impact on the reader, suffers when it strays from the racial core that is so clearly its animating force.
The novel’s one betrayal of its ambitions is that while Dylan sometimes fails to stand out as fully realized, Mingus is often too dim even to emerge fully as his fraternal shadow. The offense is not unforgivable. Lethem never reduces Mingus to an icon of primitive or sexual energy, but he leaves the mystery of his person undisturbed until the very end. Preserving Mingus’s enigmatic allure to Dylan is integral to the book’s thematic conceit, but it would have been still more powerful had Lethem shown the power of an enigma exuded by a fully realized person. Instead he trains all his illumination on Dylan, the brother who already holds more light.
We never know: What does Mingus think of Brooklyn? What does Mingus think of Dylan? What does Mingus think of Mingus? We are never privy to the reasons why Mingus would want to belong to Dylans world, expressing as it does the lure of whiteness to black people. Much could have been gained by looking past the easy trappings of wealth, comfort, or pride of place and into the hazy psychic stuff of whiteness that might offer the deeper appeal that we readily recognize blackness holds for whites.
Not until the penultimate section of the book’s five hundred pages is the fortress of Mingus’ enigma penetrated. All paths in the story lead to the coda, the unraveling of a mysterious being until the abstract rhythm fades to reveal the syncopated details of another sad, familiar, crack-ruined life. For all his elusive wonder, Mingus is alone among the millions of destroyed men who are not his brothers, no less alone for being Dylan’s brother.
In Dylan’s mind, which directly or indirectly voices much of the book, Mingus is a romantic paradox, a symbol of the racial other half. Intimately intertwined with Dylan, Mingus nonetheless exudes, both in his private art and his public degradation, the tragic illusion that he cannot be known. Lethem’s essential riff is on the ability of race, a socially constructed idea, to hatch inside a person and manifest its presence from the inside out as if it naturally belonged.
An essential feature of being black, Lethem suggests through the magic ring, is simply to pass unnoticed among other blacks and to be a presence among whites. Thus Dylan could be assumed into the bourgeoisie, the gates of which, without his knowing it, had always been open to him. A breezy white entitlement that allowed for poverty as a backstory rather than a fate was the gift that Dylan could never share with Mingus. The ring that he could share bore the message of the privilege that he could not. Mingus, the million dollar kid with the famous father, had none of guiding forces, neither the bohemian father nor the surrogate mother from Brooklyn Heights, to usher him in to Dylan’s stake in material comfort and emotional anguish.
Here is the book’s perilous leap and a likely cause of its critical neglect. To have honestly probed its racial dimension one would have been forced to confront evidence that Lethem espouses a vision of essentialist racial difference. The novel can be read as the account of a white heart breaking when it learns that a qualitative difference in humanity separates it by an unbridgeable gap from its black love. Although the book is not racist, it is unfortunate that it was not decried as such. Had Lethem been so impugned his champions and detractors alike might have spent less time marveling at his wondrous depictions of stoopball and more time examining the substance of his work.
Race is the great gift of the American experience to the literature of identity. Nothing else is so tenuously real and yet so strenuously felt, so perfect a metaphor and yet such a suffering reality. The national culture hums with blithe chatter about it, most of it voicing either the cartoonish archetypes of opposed black and white evoked in music, film and most everything else—as if any American could be fully one or the other—or the complementary obverse, starry-eyed, disingenuous portraits of racial harmony. Meanwhile the real engine of our protean American identity, miscegenation, continues to work not only from above but most often as an invisible hand guided by individual interest, inquiry and self-expression.
With few exceptions, frank talk about race, if it is to be proper and acceptable, belongs only to the social sciences where it can be sheltered by graphs and appendices and presented for the public good rather than private understanding. This obscurantist demurral, aside from its obvious harm to the nation, helps explain why even the best literary critics, living in a time when many wonder whether our culture is even capable of producing great novels, missed the explicit point of a monumental book in which Lethem seized the torch of Twain, Faulkner, Ellison and Murray, and lit upon the dark secret of our identity that we hide in plain view.