Best of the 00’s – Empire Falls and Fortress of Solitude

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, is a story about a foundering small town in Maine and its important families. It’s class struggle, small town politics, family dysfunction, and mental health. It’s a very real story, good-hearted without being preachy. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

But here I am, a month later, and I don’t find I have much to say about it. It didn’t leave me thinking about anything. I had the sense of completeness that I always get from reading something well-crafted, but I don’t imagine I’ll read it again, and I am a re-reader.

But then again, how is that any different from any of the other things people read or watch or listen to? Why do I need it to be more than that.

I immediately went to goodreads and rated this book 5 stars. I think that’s the most important takeaway here.

The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, is proving even trickier to get my head around. Of course, I finished it last night, not a month ago, so it hasn’t had the same amount of time to bounce around, but I expect that in the end it will still be a puzzler.

A lot of the reviews of this book make the same point; the first half is very strong, the second half falters. The half that everyone who enjoyed the book likes is about a white boy growing up in a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1970’s, his parents in the initial wave of a purposeful gentrification effort, and struggling with the rules of the street. It’s kind of a tough road, making you empathize with privileged people playing at social equality while slowly changing the climate in ways that will push out the poor, and there are a couple of reviewers, inevitably, who think Lethem failed at it, but in the end, I think the character of young Dylan Ebdus, and even his parents, are sympathetic. The villainous architect of the renovations leaves the story early on, and none of the remaining white characters has any idealogical axe to grind.

The half that people seem to mostly hate is about the same character, in his 30’s, as a freelance music writer aimlessly drifting through late 90’s Berkeley. Even this half is full of flashbacks and reflections on the first half, which makes it much less different from the half everyone likes than the reviews make it sound, but it’s hard to argue with the overall result. The second half is just weaker.

Possibly it’s supposed to be this way. There’s a sense in the writing that Lethem is attempting something here, and it’s just possible that the weaker second half is deliberate assonance with the stronger, purer feelings of the young character against the uncertain, qualified emotions of the older character… but I guess I mean it’s just possible. It’s a charitable read. Probably the book is just uneven.

There’s an element of magical realism that I don’t understand, an artifact that’s too powerful to be of as little consequence as it is in the story. There’s an obsession with comic books and pop culture that makes this a semi-parallel with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao from this same reading list. There’s some adolescent sexuality that doesn’t really jibe with the way my friends and I came into adulthood, though all of my friendships were different than the ones in this story.

All told, I’m pretty sure this book is something. And if you were a Brooklyn kid from the 70’s with a comic book background, maybe it would be everything to you. But for me, it was vegetables. I read it because I thought it would be good for me, and now that it’s done, I’m not sure whether or not I was sold a bill of goods.

It was fine, I guess. Polarizing.

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