One of the hardest parts of growing up takes place years after the actual growing up. It comes when you revisit a person or place that was instrumental in your youth and find that they, or it, became something entirely different in your absence. You felt as if you had invented this person, imagined this street in your own head, only to see they had almost nothing to do with you at all. You thought you were the protagonist of a story, but you were just there.
There is much heartbreak to be found in Jonathan Lethem’s partially-autobiographical The Fortress of Solitude, which depicts the upbringing of two boys in the ragged, pre-gentrified Brooklyn of the 1970s, but it is the sombre recognition of this fact which is the saddest thing about it. After 300 pages breathlessly detailing the minutiae of graffiti, street games, soul music, silver age comic books and the birth of hip-hop, not to mention drug abuse, poverty, damaged, damaging parents and above all the societal challenges of race, the story leaps 18 years into the future to discover its heroes set down radically different paths, abstracted from one another. After making us care deeply about the residents of Boerum Hill, Lethem captures the sensation, depressing and strangely embarrassing, of seeing someone for the first time in decades and finding they’ve been swallowed whole by a thing you escaped.
Until that juncture though, there is youth: giddy, anxious, fleeting. In being so specific and expansive about a time and place, the author captures something universal not just about being young, but about how it feels to remember being young. While Lethem later introduces one significant, superhero-inspired element of magical realism, his writing is at its most evocative when articulating the vivid-yet-hazy quality of memory. During one gorgeous passage, he describes a game of stickball on an endless day in late August, the sort of game – “One kid’s mom yelled for half an hour and even then nobody else paid attention, nobody went inside” – that inspires nostalgia as it’s happening, the sort of game that will eventually expand in the act of recollection to encompass all similar recollections of that period. Like any miraculous thing it seems to last forever until, all of a sudden, it’s become the past. “Summer on Dean Street had lasted one day and that day was over, it was dark out, had been for hours.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six