If Manhattan swoons into our consciousness via the music of Gershwin and Woody Allen's bohemian sophisticates, then Brooklyn takes its soundtrack from The Beastie Boys and the homegrown menace of Spike Lee. Its sound is one of cultures jostling and retreating, of ethnicity squaring off, keeping face and (occasionally) backing down. No wonder it is considered the birthplace of hip-hop: Brooklyn is the art of sampling as survival, which can be as lethal as it is alluring.
In his cult novel Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem enacted the borough's rhythms in a narrator who suffered from Tourette's syndrome. Here was someone who really did have a multitude of voices, a thesaurus of obscenity in whom the melting pot was forever simmering.
The Fortress of Solitude sidesteps any singular conceits, opting instead for a graffiti-scrawled coming-of-age tale of 1970s adolescence. Dylan Ebdus is the son of exactly the kind of folk-poet groupies who would give him that first name. A shy and scrawny white kid, he is as eager to escape his heritage as Robert Zimmerman was his. His acid-fried mother hits the bottle and the road, leaving Dylan to the care of his artist/film-maker dad. His friend, the young Mingus Rude, is also forced to wear his legacy on his birth certificate, his father a should-have-been soul musician of the 1960s.
A lesser novel would have allowed the two boys' friendship to blossom with all its Huck Finn-ish resonance. Yet what gives this book its balls (and, yes, it is as much about masculinity as about race) is its refusal to lapse into naïve humanism. Lethem excels at pinpointing the monstrous cruel- ties of teenage allegiance. He brings out the enormity of the after-school snub, the precarious hierarchies of neighbourhood cool. There are God-given riffs on the dynamics of "yoking": the art of putting a white kid in a playful (read painful) headlock in order to tease him. "The logic was insane, except as a polyrhythm of fear and reassurance, a seduction. 'What are you afraid of? You a racist, man?' Me? We yoke you for thinking that we might: in your eyes we see that you come pre-yoked."
Some American reviewers have seemed outraged that Lethem is attempting to claim the status of victim for the put-upon white boy. Yet Dylan's very conspicuousness is at issue, a yearning for invisibility as a day-to-day strategy for keeping hold of pocket money, and his head on his shoulders.
As the boys become men - and their styling becomes deadly serious - it is to popular culture that the book's heart surrenders. I have never read a novel so marinaded in music, with its knowledge of how soul blends into funk, of those obscure session men whose 45s are the kids' holy grail. The startling agility and precision of Lethem's writing manages to satiate such an appetite while whetting it all the way. This is a banquet of a book.