Do you remember Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters? They were bald creatures that “grew” hair when you added water. Or perhaps you, or a parent, mailed off a few coins taped to cardboard for a Crazy Crab (a hermit crab that “loves to be touched and petted, and enjoys running from hand to hand, swinging from your fingers or just cuddling on your shoulder like an adorable tame parrot,” baited the pitch).
Howzabout X-Ray Spex, touted as allowing you to see under a girl’s clothes. They didn’t work.
All these products came out of the brain of Harold Von Braunhut. But his biggest marketing and sales bonanza was the Amazing Live Sea-Monkey. Von Braunhut worked with a marine biologist to breed a brine shrimp that could survive dehydration and shipping by post. The ads were inspired, and ran in the back of comic books through the 1970s (and beyond — his widow is currently involved in an ownership lawsuit with millions of dollars at stake; check out the New York Times Magazine, which published a piece in April titled “The Battle Over The Sea-Monkey Fortune”).
Clearly sea-monkeys had an impact on the childhood of New York City author Jonathan Lethem. He was six years old in 1970, and his novel The Fortress Of Solitude (published in 2003) is largely a rejigged reminiscence of that decade. Within are found many, many comic books, either purchased or stolen, all carefully stored in plastic bags because they should be worth thousands right about now. (All but the rarest comics are largely worthless now, of course, but 10-year-olds are capable of so much hope.)
The Fortress of Solitude, as fans will know, is Superman’s castle, an isolated place filled with knowledge (and located in the Arctic, somewhere in Canada). It is, in many ways, a place of loneliness.
Fortress is the story of Dylan Ebdus, a white kid living in poor, black Brooklyn. His hippie mother abandons him to his father, a man obsessed with creating an avant-garde film that he surely will never finish, laboriously painting each frame by hand.
Dylan is a sad-sack, an insecure mess who collapses whenever anyone looks at him sideways. Perhaps that’s why he idolizes superheroes. Certainly his efforts to become one (the fantastical Aeroman!) end in a magical failure (though not a failure of magic).
The years go by, and comics and popsicles give way to Playboy, pot and cocaine. But even as Dylan grows up, the 1970s (plus or minus) continue as a main character. Mel Brooks, the Pink Panther, Farah Fawcett, graffiti tagging, Eraserhead, bad sci-fi novels, Pong … the decade’s pop and nerd culture suffuses, as does its music, and music in general. Dylan’s most memorable neighbour is a soul singer whose career has collapsed.
Even given his ‘hood, Dylan’s mix of class and whiteness allow him all the advantages (except at his largely black school: he was “an apple skinned for inspection… he stank of panic”). And yet he reaches his thirties while still trapped in the past.
“It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life…. the song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere…. Rhythm guitar and trumpet, pitched to mockery. The singer might as well have held a gun to your head. How could it have been allowed to happen, how could it have been allowed on the radio? That song ought to be illegal. It wasn’t racist – you’ll never sort one out, don’t even start – so much as anti-you.”
Play that funky music white boy
Play that funky music right
Play that funky music white boy
Lay down the boogie and play that funky music till you die
Ever the loser, Dylan yet becomes a middlingly, muddlingly successful music writer, based in California. His childhood pals are not so lucky: “What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” Fear, drugs and violence take their tolls.
Fortress Of Solitude is a big mess of a book, much like life. The past interferes, impacts, leaves us confused and at times, even lost. It’s a book of melancholy and lost opportunities, so filled with detail and imagery that it must be savoured slowly. Find it in New Arrivals at the Lennoxville Library.
— Eleanor Brown, June 10, 2016