Fortress of Solitude is about a young white boy growing up in 70s Brooklyn. When I used this statement to describe this book to a friend, she asked ‘why do you mention that he’s white?’
This question made me stop. Because, in the context of this story it was an essential distinction, but in the real world it is not something people clarify. But had I said it was about a young black boy, would that have illicited the same response?
This is one of the questions that this novel raises. It is about race and being singled out in a community, about trying to emulate the majority, or trying to be invisible. It is about the attributes we assign to race and how they have shifted, or not, over the decades.
Dylan lives in the heart of Gowanas with his artist father and eccentric mother. Despite their financial comfort, Dylan’s mother is set on her son attending the local public school and fully integrating with the community. He resents her naive blindness to the daily bullying he endures, and later says ‘Her mistake was so beautiful, so stupid, so American.” Like a reversed American Dream, she almost fetishises the poverty that surrounds them and throws Dylan into a life where he is destined to live as the outsider.
The blurb presents this as a novel about friendship between Dylan and a young black boy called Mingus. However, whilst the things that connect them are integral to the story, I would argue that it is much more about Mingus’ effect on Dylan than any equality or bond. Dylan is captivated by Mingus from their first meeting. He protects hims when he can but this comes second to his own place in the hierarchy, and as they grow up they begin to drift apart.
Mingus introduces Dylan to comics (a love that stays with him and one I wish had been covered more) and to tagging (a form of graffiti). But significantly, Dylan never forms his own tag, opting instead to propagate the fame of Mingus’ alter-ego: Dose.
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And the third completed wall at Coney Art Walls is by the great John CRASH Matos who adds one more attraction to the famed amusement park in Coney Island, Brooklyn. @crashone #crashone #hotdogs #nyc #brooklyn #coneyisland #@coneyislandartwalls #coneyartwalls Go to BrooklynStreetArt.com for more photos and coverage.
The other element that connects them is the ring. This is the single fantastical element of the entire novel: a ring with super powers that Dylan inherits from a flying drunk homeless man. The ring inspires Dylan to create ‘Aeroman’, but this is another gift that he grants Mingus, taking a back seat in their superhero adventures.
As I said, this friendship is not about equality but presents an interesting dynamic where unusually it is the white protagonist who is the outsider. Dylan who is desperate for acceptance and spends his whole life as a mirror to the community around him, always one step behind everyone else. It is this childhood dynamic which not only triggers his lifetime obsession with negritude, but also forms the fortress of his existence: a history that he never moves on from.
Dylan’s life is ruled by music. From his connection to Mingus and his musician father, Barrett Rude Jr, to his alignment with the punks in Manhattan, to the way he designates people by their ‘Beatles’ persona. This follows him into adulthood where he becomes a music journalist and writes liner notes for compilations. His experiences and relationships are all associated with music and this is reflective the way many of us process and store memories. However, this can make for heavy, and at times distracting, reading and I couldn’t help but feel alienated and jerked out of the narrative by my lack of reference. Perhaps if this were in digital form, the music would have better resonance with the story.
The musical connotations even govern the format of the book as a set of Dylan’s own liner notes divide the novel into an A-side and B-side, the before and after.
Once at college among the white middle class, he embodies the role that he could never achieve on the streets, once again positioning himself as the outsider. From then on, no matter where he ends up, he is constantly haunted by past connections and perpetuates his own condition through lingering obsessions with his past.
The ring does make a reappearance towards the end and, although some have criticised its sparse focus, I think it was important for the ring to play a background, puppeteer role. It lends Dylan a sense of power that is not overt, but affects the way he interacts, and instills in him a sense of agency over the fate of others. His childhood chess games are echoed in the way he positions and plays those around him.