The Fortress of Solitude

Written: January 3, 2015

Named after Superman’s home, the novel follows a white kid in Brooklyn growing up in a mostly Puerto Rican and black neighborhood. Early on his mother either gets taken away or leaves. He gets bullied. Why aren’t books ever written by bullies? Or just kids that don’t get bullied? Perhaps needless to say, the kids who are bullied are loners who actually spend a lot of time reading and eventually writing. When I was a kid, I was both bully and bullied. I guess I was fortunate growing up in a mixed white-collar and blue-collar middle class suburb. There weren’t a lot of bad kids. I only remember in the fourth or fifth grade, one kid who supposedly went to juvenile hall and one day he broke a kid’s nose on the playground. That was the first time I saw a kid bleed. It was shocking. I was probably the worst behaving kid in my class getting into fights and getting called to the principal’s office the most. It was definitely a sheltered childhood compared to what I’ve read about kids growing up in the big cities.

Dylan is named after Bob Dylan the singer and has a side interest in mostly black music and black culture and black women and black friends. The first part of the book covers his childhood in Brooklyn. At first, it’s a beautifully written story of a kid’s harrowing life in the ghetto as an outcast, but then it just goes on a bit too long. I skimmed a lot. His teenage years go by pretty fast with one rather oddball scene where he’s jerking off his best friend and getting jerked off. That was the only homosexual scene in an otherwise apparently heterosexual life. I don’t know about you, but I never once thought about or even imagined jerking off my male friends. Sexuality is a spectrum. It’s not a switch. It was disturbing for me to be honest, but I guess I’d be lying to say it wasn’t. While I support gay rights 100%, I am a product of my culture that continually looks down upon homosexuality, but then again, wouldn’t a sex scene between a man and woman disturb a gay man? Don’t I have a right to be put off by something I don’t like? Is it okay if I said, I don’t like watching people eat insects? I don’t want to outlaw it; I just don’t want to see it or read about it.

There is also an odd episode where Dylan’s pal presumably can turn himself into a superhero with a ring and fly. I’m sort of surprised the Guardian Angels don’t get mentioned here since it’s set in the 70’s and 80’s. I remember growing up during the worst crime epidemic in recent history, and as a boy, you’re scared shitless, but you’re also fascinated and you want to toughen yourself up. I remember gazing over an atlas map of New York City and fantasizing about being in a dangerous gang in the boroughs. A lot of non-black kids in fact fetishized hardcore inner-city black culture and rap and gangs. In their minds, it was the rite of passage of the day, and with MTV glorifying gangs, it just seemed the cool thing to do. I remember thinking, man, if I had a black friend and acted all gangster, I’d be cool and women would like me. The era of pop and innocence was over, and in my mind, irreversibly. We matured past the bullshit of the 50’s Mickey Mouse club, loosened morals in the 60’s and now we had outgrown the stupid pop and disco of the 70’s and 80’s to become a Spartan warrior culture of the 90’s. It was a linear. Today, I realize, history is never linear but goes all over the place, often backtracking. Clueless was the most underappreciated cultural benchmark of the modern era. One movie destroyed the hegemony of the warrior gangster culture of the 90’s. It was okay to be a girly-girl. It was okay to be soft. It was okay to be rich. It was okay to be white. It was okay to be suburban. Never would I imagine in a hundred years people would be wearing Izods and bright color polo shirts, but low and behold, they came back and the Polo horse logo became supersized and worn by of all people, rappers! Today, our hardcore rapping gangster felons of the past are now reverends, fathers, grandfathers, TV reality show stars, movie stars, in other words, mainstream. So this rewind into the pit of the rapper gangster culture of Brooklyn is no longer cool. Without the cool, the MTV glow, what you basically get is a bunch of poor kids exploiting weaker poor kids and listening to different music, and then it skips the worst part, the crack and drive-by epidemics. Of course, today, Brooklyn is another cultural icon, the hipster enclave. Never would I have ever imagined that one day I would throw away all of my baggy jeans and 2 XL shirts and sweaters and jackets and be wearing relatively skinny jeans and tight-fitting shirts and jackets slimming my profile. While I wouldn’t say I’m slave to my culture, that our culture in fact allows for a wide variety of decision-making, that there are sufficient niches within that culture to create uniqueness (just like the limitations of 64 squares and 32 pieces on a chess board can create unimaginable combinations of moves), the 64 regional geographic spaces in America and 32 subcultures can create for a remarkable array of unique and unpredictable situations and personalities.

The second half of the book follows Dylan through college, Vermont and Berkeley and a little gig as a DJ but then retraces back to Brooklyn and his old pals, his best friend serving time for manslaughter. Ultimately, it’s all a rather sad story with the backdrop of beautiful music and literary prose. The best one was “Arthur Lomb’s speech bore like a small puckered scar a characteristic hitch of intaken breath in that place where he’d omitted the word black from a sentence but not from the thought which had given rise to the sentence. And that hitch of breath, it seemed to Dylan, was Arthur in a nutshell, making such slow show of a card unplayed that he tipped his whole hand.” Otherwise, for me at least, it was all just too sad and repetitive to bear and I skimmed most of it all the way to the end. Likewise, without all the glamor and glitz of MTV, the whole 90’s gangster hip hop movement was really nothing but a really sad tale of poor people exploiting weaker poor people. For white America, it was just cool.…/…/0375724885

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