In his book Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem tells the story of two boys Mingus Rude who is black and Dylan Ebdus who is white. These two boys are friends, but the difference in their races makes their friendship quite hard.
The two live in a Brooklyn neighborhood where most of the inhabitants are exclusively black. In this novel, Lethem tells the story of America in the 1970s when a lot was happening concerning racial issues.
The reader can also relate this novel to the 1990s when no one seemed to care about the other person. Fortress of Solitude is the story of racial tension and this paper will focus on analyzing this theme and how this book relates to the American Dream.
This novel concentrates on issues of race, gentrification, music and culture. However, the theme of racial tension dominates the book especially with the story being centered on two friends who have racial differences. Although Dylan is white and his friend Rude is black, both boys share similar tastes in music and comic books.
Dylan is a white kid living in the midst of a black community in Brooklyn and just like the other children in the neighborhood he attends the public schools. Dylan’s childhood is demonstrated as one filled with “public embarrassment, yoking, and bullying” (Lethem 3).It is clear that there exists a racial tension between the society, Rude and Dylan and as a result their relationship has to be kept a secret.
Dylan’s experiences while growing up gives a clear picture of racial tension; he and his parents Abraham and Rachael belong to the “self styled gentrification project” that is led by a white woman named Isabel Vendle.
According to Lethem gentrification means “uncool” therefore this project demonstrates blacks as “uncool” (12). The intention of Isabel to start the project was to change Gowanus into Boerum Hill by having the brownstones “figuratively bleached of their colors, and the Puerto Rican and black populations yielding to richer whites” (Lethem 13).
Dylan was impressed by the gentrification project and this is evidenced through his refusal to play with a black girl simply because she is of a different race which is said to be uncool.
The girls’ description in the first few lines of the novel indicates racial tension; “the two white girls in red vinyl roller skates with white laces on a cracked blue slate sidewalk looking like a match struck in a darkened room” (Lethem 3). This description casts a picture of contrast between light and dark in the terms of race.
Dylan’s friendship with Mingus Rude can be viewed has a pole which he uses to triangulate his own racial identity. With the fact that he is a white boy living in the middle of a black neighborhood whose amusements include muggings and bullying, his friendship to Rude is a gift to him from the heavens.
In such a neighborhood and the fact that he is white, Dylan needs a lot of protection from the blacks; this can only be achieved through befriending Rude who is black. As a matter of fact, Mingus Rude is a good friend as well as a role model to Dylan.
Dylan depends on Rude for protection and his entrance to power structure of Dean Street. As their friendship progresses, the two boys get attracted to each other romantically. The tension in racial relations here can be thought as the relationship that is expected to exist between a white and a black; a relationship of master-servant.
Racial tension is seen where Dylan befriends another white boy Arthur Lomb so as to get through the school years normally. The difference comes in where both white boys take different approaches towards life. Dylan decides to go to a white and elite high school while Arthur chooses to hang out with black kids. Arthur befriends Mingus Rude and Robert Woolfolk who become his role models teaching him “niggerfication.”
Dylan believes that, the contrast found between being black or white does matter even where it is expected not to. About the Chinese children, Dylan says that “the Chinese children in school weren’t white and they weren’t so that was a plus” (Lethem 32).
He continues to say “anyway it wasn’t their fault they were Chinese” (Lethem 32). It was not Dylan’s fault as well; his cultural inheritance of being white gave him class and racial dislocation.
For this reason, Dylan emulates the black culture by listening to black music, keeping an “afro” and having a black girlfriend (Lethem 56). In this case, Dylan seems to deny his race thus causing more racial relationship tensions between the black and the white community.
The opposing irony of Dylan being white seems to torment him most of the times. His life as a “white boy” is met by endless humiliations (Lethem 56). All the same, his “whiteness” also affords him an opportunity to leave the oppressive black neighborhood to a richer and famous one in Vermont.
Racial tension is seen where even with white children surround him, Dylan does not actually fit in. when Dylan attends the college party, he says “that easy appropriation of dance-floor funk was a first taste, for me, of something I desperately wanted to understand: the suburban obliviousness of these white children to the intricate boundaries of race and music which were my inheritance and obsession.
Nobody here cared it was only a danceable song” (Lethem 59). This quote illustrates the racial tensions which may exist between people of the same race. Although racial relations are the main theme of this book the characters play roles that seem to be predetermined. All blacks in the novel are sentimentalized despite their varied occupations; whether a mugger or a musician, if the person is black, he o she is sentimentalized.
As a racial experiment, Dylan fails when he decides to adorn “black leather jackets and white boy rock” to be a part of the Stately Wayne Manor band. Discrimination against the black community is evident where Rude is left to be “a prisoner of the streets” (Lethem 66).
At this point, the reader can tell that there exists a racial tension between Dylan and Rude; Dylan exclaims “hey, it’s not racist to find blacks earnest as hippies, broad, and embarrassing as a comic book these boys are punks and punks sneer that’s what they do deal with it” (Lethem 66).
The American dream promises success and prosperity for any citizen of the US despite their racial background. On the other hand, the American Dream suggests that for people to succeed, they must work hard. In the novel Fortress of Solitude, the American Dream of equal rights for every one is found to fail.
There is rampant racial discrimination in the Brooklyn neighborhood which makes it hard for the minority to live the American Dream. It is stated in the American dream that “all men are created equal” but in Dylan’s society there are people who are “more equal than others.”
In conclusion, Fortress of Solitude is a book that explains tensions that exist between people of different races especially the black and the white community. The author Jonathan Lethem actually tells his own tale when he was growing up in Brooklyn and his expectations of the American Dream as a descendant of Greece.
The relationship between the main protagonist Dylan and Mingus Rude clearly demonstrate the tension in racial relationships. The race difference in these boys leads them to totally different worlds in the end. While Dylan becomes a journalist, Rude ends up in prison. This is the picture in our modern world especially in countries where racial discrimination is evidenced.
Lethem, Jonathan. The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2004. Print.