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 say dang, 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 chanting
the song at Arthur Lomb as they slapped at his reddened neck or
the top of his head while he squirmed on the floor. Play that fucking
music, white boy! Stretching the last two words to a groaning, derisive,
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
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 for class dismissed. So the I.S. 293 library
was drab but peaceful, an eddy of calm. Below a poster advertising A
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 of Logan'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 lunchtime 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.
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 a fox."
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 of Logan’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. "You
have to buy number ones, it's an investment. I've got ten of Eternals,
ten of 2001, ten of Omega, ten of Ragman, ten of Kobra.
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 of Blue Beetle #1 from him once. It was
pathetically easy. Blue Beetle is Charlton, you ever hear of Charlton
Comics? Went out of business. Number one's a number one, doesn't matter.
You know Fantastic Four #1 goes 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 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem Copyright©
2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This is the
story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude. They are friends and neighbors,
but because Dylan is white and Mingus is black, their friendship is not
simple. This is the story of their Brooklyn neighborhood, which is almost
exclusively black despite the first whispers of something that will become
known as "gentrification."
This is the
story of 1970s America, a time when the most simple human decisionswhat
music you listen to, whether to speak to the kid in the seat next to you,
whether to give up your lunch moneyare laden with potential political,
social and racial disaster. This is the story of 1990s America, when no
one cared anymore.
This is the
story of punk, that easy white rebellion, and crack, that monstrous plague.
This is the story of the loneliness of the avant-garde artist and the
exuberance of the graffiti artist.
This is the
story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic book
heroes actually had superpowers: They would screw up their lives.
This is the
story of joyous afternoons of stickball and dreaded years of schoolyard
extortion. This is the story of belonging to a society that doesn't accept
you. This is the story of prison and of college, of Brooklyn and Berkeley,
of soul and rap, of murder and redemption.
This is the
story Jonathan Lethem was born to tell. This is The Fortress of Solitude.
is the only novelist listed among Newsweek's "100 People for the
New Century." He reinvents familiar genres every time he sits down
to write and has a particular fondness for mixing sci-fi with hard-boiled
detective fiction. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker,
Rolling Stone, McSweeney's, and many other periodicals.
He lives in Brooklyn, New York.