We're still a month away from the advent of Toni Morrison's next blockbuster, but it's already clear that 2003 will be remembered as the year white authors discovered black America. What other brief period has produced as many major works about the unresolved anxieties of our integrated society?
In January, Richard Powers published a gorgeous novel called "The Time of Our Singing" about the marriage of a black woman and a white immigrant. Richard Price followed with "Samaritan," the disturbing story of a liberal determined to save poor black kids with the power of his guilty white love. Norman Rush's "Mortals" skewered America's problematic efforts to "redeem" black Africa. Sena Jeter Naslund examined the civil rights movement from all its multicolored facets in "Four Spirits."
And now comes Jonathan Lethem with "The Fortress of Solitude," a novel of boundless energy and startling insight about the conundrum adults impose on children by demanding that they live the ideal of integration that we've been unable to demonstrate ourselves.
Lethem won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for "Motherless Brooklyn," and his new novel opens nearby in the early 1970s on a street in Brooklyn that's teetering between gentrification and gang warfare. Dylan is the only child of a pair of beatniks who pride themselves on their ability to appreciate the "authentic" quality of Dean Street. His father remains cloistered on the third floor, painting an abstract film frame by fame. And his flamboyant mother hauls her shy son away from comic books and pushes him into the street, insisting that he join the black kids standing around the sidewalk.
Lethem's mock-heroic voice, full of innocence and mischief, perfectly captures the challenges of childhood, the desperation to belong, the acute sensitivity to embarrassment, the unquestioning endurance of adults' absurd behavior. At first, Dylan has no idea what to do with these streetwise children, and they have no interest in him whatsoever. He's small and bookish, a weak athlete better at playing invisible than spaldeen. But his talent with a piece of chalk eventually draws him into the group and gives him tentative acceptance.
His only real position in the neighborhood, though, comes from his remarkable friendship with Mingus Rude, a charismatic black boy who's a year older. The son of a washed-up R&B singer, Mingus "was a world, an exploding bomb of possibilities." He's cool in white or black, proud of his Boy Scout uniform but hip to the hood, a bilingual genius of charm strong enough to project a force field of protection around a dweeb like Dylan.
In this bursting symphony of nostalgia, the two boys struggle to follow the byzantine complexity of superheros, plumb the nature of sea monkeys, catch the latest music, and stay fluent in the ever-evolving lingo of their block. Together, they join "graffiti writers competing like viruses, by raw proliferation," spreading over a citywide canvas with spray cans. "What's in it for the white kid?" Lethem asks. "Well, he's been allowed to merge his identity in this way with the black kid's, to lose his funkymusicwhiteboy geekdom in the illusion that he and his friend Mingus Rude are ... a team, a united front, a brand name, an idea."
But it's a doomed partnership. School and circumstances continually separate the unlikely duo. Away from his protector, Dylan does his best to blend in, but he remains an indelible spot on a black street, a beacon for bullies and casual muggings. As he begins 7th grade, Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" tops the charts, and Dylan's misery has an anthem.
"White boy was his name," Lethem writes. "He'd grown into it, crossed a line, become visible. He shined like free money. The price of the name was whatever was in his pockets at the time, 50 cents or a dollar."
In the weird physics of race in this liberal age, the old vectors of power are skewed unpredictably. "Just come here for a minute, man," some street thug calls to him daily. "I ain't gonna hurt you. What you gotta be afraid for? Dang, man. You a racist?"
"Your fear makes it our duty to prove you right," Lethem glosses. "The guilt of Dylan's whiteness excusing everything, covering it all."
Ironically, this daily ritual never breeds any racist resentment in Dylan, but the humiliation instills in him a desire to be black, to shed the whiteness that makes him impotent in this tough culture.
His fantasies periodically take flight in bits of surreal comic-book action. Disguised as Aeroman, a raceless superhero, Dylan soars above the street, defends the helpless, and vanquishes evildoers. It's a jarring, incongruous element that perfectly conveys his impossible longing.
Meanwhile, Mingus doesn't stand much of a chance against the temptations thrust upon him. His depressed and angry father gives him more freedom than any teenager could survive, along with enough access to money and drugs to keep him in a constant narcotic haze. Dylan joins him on the way down into this depravity, but the whiteness that initially stigmatized Dylan no matter how hard he tried to fit in eventually rescues him no matter how little he deserves it.
While he escapes to college (a wicked satire of Bennington), his old friend can't charm his way out of the snares set for him. It's an inequity that haunts Dylan the rest of his life, turning him into a self-loathing negrophile and nagging him to rescue the old friend who once saved him.
This is daring stuff, as dazzling for its style as for its politics. And it's packed full of enough pop culture references to send Dennis Miller scrambling to the encyclopedia. The evolving music of the '70s and '80s beats through every page, along with a parallel history of the mutating drugs that sent America's inner cities up in smoke.
Lethem's sentences can just barely contain all he makes them accomplish as he spins "the ironized, reference-peppered palaver which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk." In fact, almost inevitably the book's structure begins to creak and break apart. In the center of the novel sits an 11-page essay on the music of Mingus's father, a liner note that's more impressive than essential. Then the second half of the book picks up in Dylan's adult voice, heavy with shame and scathing self-analysis.
There are marvelous episodes here, including a very funny bit about pitching a movie in Hollywood, but the novel never regains the breathtaking verve of its childhood section. Then again, Dylan never regains the breathtaking verve of his childhood either, and that ultimately is the tragedy of "The Fortress of Solitude." Integration still exceeds our grasp, a dream of innocence lost, articulated by Lethem in all its wondrous complexity.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.