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Excerpt from 'The Fortress of Solitude'

fortress_solitude.jpgThe Fortress of Solitude


By Jonathan Lethem

Doubleday Books

Copyright © 2003 Jonathan Lethem
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0385500696
Chapter One

FROM CHAPTER 7

...It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life. Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug. The song,thatsong, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere.

At the very least the song was the soundtrack to your destruction, thetheme. Your days reduced to a montage cut to its cowbell beat, inexorable doubled bass line and raunch vocal, a sort of chanted sneer, surrounded by groans of pleasure. The stutter and blurt of what—atuba? French horn? Rhythm guitar and trumpet, pitched to mockery. The singer might as well have held a gun to your head. How it could have been allowed to happen, how it could have been allowed on theradio? That song ought to be illegal. It wasn’t racist—you’ll never sort that one out, don’t even start—so much as anti-you.

Yes they were dancing, and singing, and movin’ to the groovin’, and just when it hit me, somebody turned around and shouted—

Every time your sneakers met the street, the end of that summer, somebody was hurling it at your head,that song.

Forget what happens when you start haunting the green-tiled halls of Intermediate School 293.

September 7, 1976, the week Dylan Ebdus began seventh grade in the main building on Court Street and Butler, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” was the top song on the rhythm and blues charts. Fourteen days later it topped Billboard’s pop charts. Your misery’s anthem, -number-one song in the nation.

Sing it through gritted teeth: WHITE BOY!
Lay down the boogie and play that funky music ’til you die.

When Dylan Ebdus first spotted Arthur Lomb the other boy was feigning pain in the far corner of the schoolyard. At some distance Dylan heard the cries and turned from the entrance of the school to look. Catching sight of Arthur Lomb was like noticing the flight and fall of a bird across a distance of -leaf-blurred sky, that flicker at the corner of vision, the abrupt plummeting. Like the flying man too, something Dylan did and didn’t wish to have noticed. It occurred at that moment of slippage after the bell had rung and the gym teachers who patrolled the yard had returned inside, ahead of the flood of students, so the yard became a lawless zone, that terrible sudden reframing of space which could happen anywhere, even inside the corridors of the school. Nevertheless it was a clumsy mistake for the boy now cringing on the ground to be caught so far from the yard’s entrance, a mistake Dylan felt he couldn’t forgive. He wouldn’t have forgiven it in himself.

Arthur Lomb fell to his knees and clutched his chest and keened. His words were briefly audible across the depopulating yard.

I can’t breathe!

Then, each syllable riding a sharp insuck of air, “I!” Pause. “Can’t!” Pause. “Breathe!”

Arthur Lomb was pretending asthma or some other weakness. It was an identifiable method: preemptive suffering. Nobody could do much with a kid who was already crying. He’d become useless, untillable soil. He had no spirit to crush and it was faintly disgusting, in poor taste. Anyway, this weirdly gasping kid might not know the rules and talk, tattle to some distant cloddish figure of authority what he imagined had been done to him. He might even be truly sick, fucked up, in pain, who knew? Your only option was to saydang, white boy, what’s your problem?I didn’t even touch you. And move on.

Dylan admired the strategy, feeling at once a cool quiver of recognition and a hot bolt of shame. He felt that he was seeing his double, his stand-in. It was at least true that any punishment Arthur Lomb endured was likely otherwise Dylan’s, or anyway that a gang of black kids couldn’t knock Dylan to the pavement or put him in a yoke at the exact moment they were busy doing it to Arthur Lomb.

From that point on Arthur Lomb’s reddish hair and hunched shoulders were easy to spot, though he and Dylan had different homerooms, and schedules which kept them from overlapping anywhere except the schoolyard at lunch hour. Arthur Lomb dressed in conspicuous striped polo shirts and wore soft brown shoes. His pants were often highwaters. Dylan once heard a couple of black girls serenading Arthur Lomb with a couplet he hadn’t himself elicited since fourth grade, snapping their fingers and harmonizing high and low like a doo-wop group:the flood is over, the land is dry, so why do you wear your pants so high?

Arthur Lomb carried an enormous and bright blue backpack, an additional blight. All his schoolbooks must be inside, or maybe a couple of stone tablets. The bag itself would have tugged Arthur Lomb to the ground if he’d stood up straight. As it was the bag glowed as a target, begged to be jerked downward to crumple Arthur Lomb to the corridor floor to enact his shortness-of-breath routine. Dylan had seen it done five times already before he and Arthur Lomb ever spoke. Dylan had even heard kids chantingthe songat Arthur Lomb as they slapped at his reddened neck or the top of his head while he squirmed on the floor. Play thatfuckingmusic, white boy! Stretching the last two words to a groaning, derisive, Bugs-Bunnyesquewhyyyyyyyboy!

There were just three other white kids in the school, all girls, with their own girl factors to work out. One shared Dylan’s homeroom, an Italian girl, black-haired and sullen and tiny, dwarfed by the girls all around them who exploded with hormonal authority. The black and Puerto Rican girls had risen to some other place where they were rightly furious at anything in view, jostling at one another and at the teachers in a rage of sex. However, their very size offered an approach: it was feasible to pass unseen below. Homeroom was a place for honing silence in a theater of noise and so the Italian girl and Dylan never spoke. As for Arthur Lomb, Dylan supposed he and the other boy had been kept apart intentionally by some unseen pitying intelligence, to avoid making both more conspicuous in their resemblance. This was a policy Dylan endorsed heartily, whether it existed outside of his own brain or not. Even at that remove, Arthur Lomb bore the mingled stink of Dylan’s oppression mixed with his own, so that it was hard to tell where one began and the other left off. Dylan wasn’t in any hurry to get closer. Really, he wanted no part of Arthur Lomb.

It was the library where they finally spoke. Dylan and Arthur Lomb’s two homerooms had been deposited there together for a period, the school librarian covering some unexplained absence of teachers for an afternoon, a blip in the routine nobody cared about anyway. Most kids sent to the library never arrived there, ended up outside the building instead, taking the word as a euphemism forclass dismissed. So the I.S. 293 library was drab but peaceful, an eddy of calm. Below a poster advertisingA Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, a book the library didn’t actually offer, Dylan placed himself against a wall and flipped open issue number two of the Marvel Comics adaptation ofLogan’s Run. As the period ticked away glacially, Arthur Lomb buzzed him twice, squinting to see the title of the comic, then pursing lips in false concentration as he mimed browsing the half-empty shelves nearby, before stepping close enough for Dylan to hear him speak in an angry, clenched whisper.

“That guy George Perez can’t draw Farrah Fawcett to save his life.”

This was a startling allusion to several bodies of knowledge simultaneously. Dylan could only glare, his curiosity mingled with the certainty that he and Arthur Lomb were more objectionable, more unpardonable, together than apart. Up close Arthur Lomb had a blinky agitated quality to his features which made Dylan himself want to knock him down. His face seemed to reach for something, his features like a grasping hand. Dylan wondered if there might be a pair of glasses tucked in the background somewhere, perhaps in a side pocket of the monumental blue backpack.

Dylan hurried the comic book into his binder. He’d bought it on Court Street at luchtime and debated allowing it to be seen inside the school, a breach of general good sense. It was a lousy comic, though, stiff with fidelity to the movie, and Dylan had decided he wouldn’t care anymore than he’d be surprised if it was taken away. This, a conversation with his homely double, wasn’t the price he’d expected to pay. But Arthur Lomb seemed to sense the dent he’d made in Dylan’s attention and pressed on.

He smirked again at the comic book where it had vanished into the binder.

“Seen it?”

“What?”

Logan’s Run.”

Fuck you looking at? Dylan wanted to shriek at Arthur Lomb, before it was too late, before Dylan succumbed to his loneliness and allowed himself to meet Arthur, the other white boy.

“Not yet,” Dylan said instead.

“Farrah Fawcett is afox.”

Dylan didn’t answer. He couldn’t know, and was only chagrined that he even knew what Arthur Lomb was talking about.

“Don’t feel bad. I bought ten copies ofLogan’s Run #1.” Arthur Lomb spoke in a hurried whisper, showing some awareness of his surroundings, but compelled to spill what he had, to force Dylan know to him. “Youhaveto buy number ones, it’s an investment. I’ve got ten ofEternals, ten of 2001, ten ofOmega, ten ofRagman, ten ofKobra. And all those comics stink. You know the comics shop on Seventh Avenue? The buildings on that corner are all brand new because a plane crashed there, you heard about it? A 747 tried to crash-land in Prospect Park and missed, no kidding. Big disaster. Anyway, guy runs that shop is an a-hole. I stole a copy ofBlue Beetle#1 from him once. It was pathetically easy.Blue Beetleis Charlton, you ever hear of Charlton Comics? Went out of business. Number one’s a number one, doesn’t matter. You knowFantastic Four #1goes for four hundred dollars? The Blue Beetle might be an -all-time record for the stupidest character ever. He was drawn by Ditko, guy who created Spider Man. Ditko can’t really draw, that’s the weird thing. Makes everything look like a cartoon. Doesn’t matter, it’s a number one. Put it in plastic and put it on the shelf, that’s what I say. You use plastic, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Dylan resentfully.

He understood every word Arthur Lomb said. Worse, he felt his sensibility colonized by Arthur’s, his future interests co-opted.

They were doomed to friendship.

FROM CHAPTER 8

Three weeks earlier, Dylan Ebdus had stood on the slate in front of Mingus Rude’s stoop, waiting.

Women trudged little kids to kindergarten at the Y or moved alone up Nevins to the subway. Two gays from Pacific Street tugged leashed dachshunds, in another world. A bunch of black girls swept up from the projects to gather Marilla, who was in high school now, at Sarah J. Hale, down on Third Avenue. They shared a cigarette for breakfast, rumbled around the corner in a ball of smoke and laughter. All under the angled morning light, distant Jersey haze, merry solvent-factory stink getting you mildly high, the pillar of the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock tower organizing the sky, time different on its two visible faces but either way it was time to go, today the first day of school everywhere in the world, possibly. This day when summer ended was as hot as summer, even at eight in the morning.

Only one thing wrong with this picture, as the block cleared, the bus breathed past, a dog barked in a cycle like code. Dylan standing in long pants and with his backpack full of unruined binder pages and dumb pencils and hidden glasses and still-virgin El Marko. He felt like an apple skinned for inspection at the new school, already souring in the sun. Those dogs could tell and probably anybody else too, he stank of panic.

If Mingus Rude would walk with him up Dean Street to Smith or Court, walk through the doors of the school with him, side by side, it might be different.

Dylan went to the shuttered basement window and rapped. Mingus’s own entrance under the stairs had no doorbell.

Dylan should have planned it with him in advance, he saw now.

Up the stoop, he rang the bell.

He rang it again, shifting in his Keds, anxious, time ticking away, the day and the prospect of seventh grade rapidly spoiling with him in the sun.

Then, like an irrational puppet, panicked, he leaned on the doorbell and let it ring in a continuous trill.

He was still ringing it when the door opened.

It wasn’t Mingus, but Barrett Rude Junior in a white bathrobe, naked underneath, unhidden to the street, arms braced in the door, looking down. Face clotted with sleep, he blinked in the slanted, scouring light. He lifted his arm to cover his eyes with shade, looking like he wanted to wave the day off as a bad idea, a passing mistake.

“Hell you doing, Little Dylan?”

Dylan took a step back from the door, to the first step down.

“Don’tneverbe ringing my doorbell seven in the morning, man.”

“Mingus—”

“You’ll see Mingus at thegot-damnschool.” Barrett Rude was waking into his anger, his voice like a cloud of hammers. “Get out of here now.”

Seventh grade was where it turned out when you finally joined Mingus Rude in the main building Mingus Rude was never there. As if Mingus walked another Dean Street to school, another Court Street, had actually all this time gone to another I.S. 293 entirely. The only evidence in the opposite direction was the proliferation of dose tags on lampposts and mailboxes and on trucks which moved wearily through the neighborhood, Mingus’s handiwork spread in a nimbus with the school building at the center. Every few days, it seemed, produced a fresh supply. Dylan would covertly push a forefinger against the metal, wondering if he could measure in the tackiness of the ink the tag’s vintage. If his finger stuck slightly Dylan imagined he’d followed Mingus by minutes to the spot, barely missed catching him in the act.

For three weeks Mingus Rude was like the flying man, a rumor with himself Dylan couldn’t confirm.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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