The Fortress of Solitude Book Cover, Jonathan Lethem, Emily M KeelerThe Fortress of Solitude is, plainly, about a lot of things. Jonathan Lethem has put down in this book a dream of childhood, of comics and lives with thick lines and colour blocks, of thought bubbles bursting out of frame. And of course, it’s really about how things are never as they once were. I have a lot to say about this book, because it’s about a lot of big things. It’s about identity, and that means race, and class, and who your parents are, and who your friends are, and who you love, and it how it all works out in the end. I don’t think I’m prepared to say everything I could here, right now.

But I’ll say this: Lethem has done something really complicated here. A story about little boys who, perhaps like all little boys, want nothing so much as to lift up off the ground and fly through the air. This Brooklyn burb is a never-neverland, and Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude are the lost boys of Gowanus.

Dylan knows even at five years old that whiteness is blonde angles with roller skates. He also knows that this is unspeakable knowledge, that his mother and father and the little black girl with the chewing gun and hula hoop can never be told that this is what he knows. Dylan is our guide to this wild land of hobbesian children running amok with spaldeens.

Lethem sets up the novel in three distinct sections, the first of which details life on the block in free indirect style. The first quarter of this section captures exactly the endless summer nights of being very young, where school is a dead zone and the summers are infinite and you and your friends take the street hostage, take ownership of every paved surface, and hold on to the game even as mothers call out names from windows and front doors.

Somewhere along the way all the kids become aware of their blackness, of Dylan’s whiteness, around the same time these boys are beginning to negotiate their growing sense of their own power and masculinity. They try on identities, but they all have to contend with the racialized bodies into which they were born. This is the biggest thing going on here, this examination of the way that race takes hold, grows in a person the way a seed puts down roots. And so these kids grow up, get bigger than Gowanas, which undergoes a change of its own, becoming Boreum Hill by the end of the novel.

And it’s here at the very end that Mingus Rude gives you a key to Dylan, the kid who loved him most in the world, back when they were lost boys, and to the heart breaking distance between black and white. Mingus, who’s mixed race with a black dad and absentee white mom, shows Dylan his mean face. The face that Dylan’s seen thousands of times since adolescence, the face that a black teenager pulls to bully a white boy, the face that is born out of the way that white people fear black people, and circles back to become the reason for that fear. Seeing Mingus wear this face, someone he has loved for almost his whole life, the man he thinks of as his brother and savior, Dylan confronts a terrible truth that he’s always known about the stickball playing kids that grow up into frightening teenagers. Lethem asks in Dylan’s voice: “What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” and that this is a question at all, let alone one that has an answer, breaks my heart.