"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The title of Jonathan Lethem’s amazing new novel refers to the “secret sanctum” of the Man of Steel — Superman — an impenetrable hideout, as students of Action Comics will know, hewn from the solid rock of a mountain “in the desolate Arctic wastes,” where Superman goes to relax and unwind, “conducts incredible experiments, keeps strange trophies, and pursues astounding hobbies!” This fortress, as yet unnamed, made its first appearance in the Superman series around 1942, when creative ideas for Superman’s future began to wear thin and new characters joined old plots to keep the enterprise going.
“Here I can keep the trophies and dangerous souvenirs I’ve collected from other worlds,” Superman explained. “Here I can conduct secret experiments with my super-powers and keep souvenirs of my best friends!” The fortress became a gimmick, convenient, for the retelling of tales, a window on Superman’s past adventures and a mirror of things to come. “I built it here in the polar wastes because the intense cold keeps away snoopers,” Superman said. Its precise location was never disclosed, only that it lay “in a region of ice and snow” and that no one would ever read the diary Superman kept there, a “gigantic book, made of metal,” which he wrote in Kryptonese with one of his fingernails, “while hovering in midair high off the Fortress floor.”
Apart from its “fabulous trophy room, housing the hard-won memorabilia of more than a thousand adventures,” Superman’s icebound lair — “the most glamorous hideaway in the entire universe!” — contained a secret laboratory, where he labored in vain to discover an antidote to kryptonite. There was also a zoo — an “interplanetary” zoo — and an array of exhibits, weapons, robots and tools, along with chambers dedicated to Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Perry White and Superman’s real and foster parents — Lara and Jor-El, late of Planet Krypton, and the Kents, Jonathan and Martha, whose fortuitous truck-ride on the outskirts of Smallville allowed them to rescue the future Man of Steel, one sunny afternoon, from what might have been a fatal landing in a burning rocket “right out of the funny papers,” as Jonathan Kent said.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the Fortress of Solitude finally got a name; in 1962, Supergirl moved in, along with Superman’s fiercest opponents — Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Lex Luthor, etc. — who existed as figures in the “Hall of Enemies” and were kept in check by kryptonite detectors and “booby traps of an unspecified nature.” The effect was to have everyone in the Superman saga present all at once, on demand, next to the miniature city of Kandor, once the capital of planet Krypton, now reduced to microscopic size and preserved inside a bottle, its buildings intact, its inhabitants alive, going about their business as if nothing had happened and hoping that Superman, one day, might restore them to their natural dimension.
Alas, this was the one thing Superman couldn’t do, along with neutralizing kryptonite. From time to time, when it suited a plot, he managed to shrink himself down, hop in the bottle and pursue his adventures in the Kandor of old, but not for long, and not without risk. In fact, the past can never be recaptured, only re-created and experienced fresh. It’s a lesson Superman might have learned if he hadn’t known everything already, and it’s the message, if there is one, of Jonathan Lethem’s astonishing book — “that to find one’s art is to kill time dead with a single shot … Maybe to perfect a thing,” Lethem observes, “was to destroy it.”
“Like a match struck in a darkened room,” his novel begins: “Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” These are the Solver sisters, Thea and Ana, shining “like a new-struck flame” in the eyes of Dylan Ebdus, the currently five-year-old hero/narrator/recollected protagonist of Lethem’s mighty “Fortress.” The sisters are blond and beautiful, strangers, like Dylan, in a rundown New York neighborhood made up principally of browns and blacks. It’s 1972 and the Solvers are “the new thing, spotlit to start the show … The girls murmured rhymes,” Dylan thinks, or “were murmured rhymes” — it’s hard to tell “in the orange-pink summer dusk, the air and light which hung over the street, over all of Gowanus like the palm of a hand or the inner surface of a seashell.”
Gowanus is a part of Brooklyn, of course, not Krypton or Kandor, and Lethem is the new poet of Brooklyn — the new Whitman, even, whose bold imagination and sheer love of words defy all forms and expectations and place him among this country’s foremost novelists. Five years in the making, “The Fortress of Solitude” is Lethem’s “spiritual autobiography,” proudly claimed as such and following magically on the heels of 1999′s award-winning “Motherless Brooklyn,” the novel that introduced a detective with Tourette’s syndrome to the United States and marked Lethem’s departure from the hybrid but definitely marginal genres in which he’d previously worked — mysteries, westerns and sci-fi’s, sometimes all three at once. To say that Lethem bends the rules, pushes the envelope and extends the possibilities of fiction is to state only part of the case. He’s defiant, delicious, in his refusal to be pinned.
“I’ve been really rewarded for what a lot of people in the past have been punished for,” Lethem said in a recent interview, “which is refusing to repeat myself … I think my growth since my first published story [in 1989] is much, much larger than my growth previous to it.” On the second page of “Fortress of Solitude,” Dylan Ebdus will accidentally kill a kitten, one of “five, six, seven” in a litter that “squirmed … among the rubble and fresh-planted vines and the musky ailanthus sheddings” of his Brooklyn backyard, not yet “gentrified” from lowly Gowanus into upscale Boerum Hill, but already changing from an authentic, coherent, real-life neighborhood into a remodeled world of chocolate lattes and yuppie restaurants, with names like “Breuklyn,” “Berlin” and “The Gowanus Tart Works.” Dylan’s parents are among the first white folks to arrive, as Lethem’s were in the early 1970s.
“Dylan was too young to understand what he’d done, except he wasn’t,” Lethem writes about the murdered kitten; his parents “hoped he’d forget, except he didn’t.” It’s hard for Dylan to recall, nevertheless, in this and other cases, “whether he’d been there and watched it himself or only heard every detail, burnished into legend.” Either way, he’s afflicted with guilt, not just about the kitten, but about his own white status, his “middle class,” his intrusion on what he knows, deep down, is not really his world. Dylan’s father is an angry, lonely, bohemian painter who spends most of his time in his studio — his fortress of solitude — working on a hand-painted film that will never be finished, “painting at his tiny lightbox, making his incomprehensible progress.” His mother is the exact opposite, a gregarious Brooklynite and incorrigible hippie, half-mad with desire, who will abandon her family, send Dylan to public schools to teach him what’s what, and toss him straight out the door to play on the street with whatever dark children might happen along. Some are friendly, some hostile, and some dangerous, but most — the lion’s share — are merely indifferent, like the city itself and its streets.
“Dylan didn’t recall giving out his name,” Lethem remarks at one point, “but everyone knew it and nobody cared what it meant. They might bother sometimes to mention that he looked like a girl but it wasn’t apparently his fault. He couldn’t throw or catch but that was just too bad. Not everyone could was the general drift.” Early on, Dylan discovers that there are “two worlds” to navigate, inside and out, and knows “that he’d felt a yearning preference already then, that before the years of seasons, the years of hours to come on the street … he’d wished for the Solver girls to sweep him away into an ecstasy of blondeness and matching outfits, tightened laces, their wheels barely touching the slate, or only marking it with arrows pointing elsewhere, jet trails of escape.”
But the girls never did that; instead, they moved away and left Dylan alone, the only white child on Dean Street. Soon, he meets a new neighbor, Mingus Rude, four months older and light years beyond, half-black, half-white, the son of a one-time Motown singer fallen on luxury and cocaine days. Mingus becomes Dylan’s best friend, mentor, protector, betrayer, lover and partner in crime and adventure. He’s a former boy scout and future crack addict whom Dylan wants to “read like a language,” to keep for himself, to emulate, imitate and eventually exculpate, when life, as it will, takes them down different roads. Together, Mingus and Dylan collect comic books, stolen from local bodegas. They play ball, go to school, jerk off and “tag” the walls and trains of New York with Mingus’ distinctive signature, “Dose” — graffiti art of a time and place now lost to all but the camera and the mind, memory’s silent shore. Add to this a “flying man” with delirium tremens and a magic ring that bestows superpowers on those who wear it — the power of flight, the gift of invisibility — and, along with Mingus’ plain brown corduroys, “anything was possible, really.”
“If,” says Lethem. “If Mingus Rude could be kept in this place, kept somehow in Dylan’s pocket, in his stinging, smudgy hands, the summer wouldn’t give way to whatever came after. If. If. Fat chance. Summer on Dean Street had lasted one day and that day was over, it was dark out, had been for hours.”
“The Fortress of Solitude” knows no literal, actual time, even though the first part, called “Underberg,” ranges more or less chronologically over Dylan Ebdus’s childhood, from his mother’s disappearance and his father’s awkward efforts to make up for her absence to the “yoking” and bullying Dylan endures on the street; his academic success; the arrival of Mingus Rude’s shiftless, bible-thumping grandfather; a languid summer in Vermont; the rise of disco, punk, rap, crack, and the cataclysmic turn of events that puts an end to childhood for Dylan and Mingus both. The book is a Bildungsroman in the exact sense, the story of Dylan’s self-development in the context of place and time. It’s also a comedy, a history and a fantasy, where the strange and supernatural mix freely with the solid and austere, as they do in life, in memory, in everyone’s autobiography.
“Second grade was first grade with math,” Lethem explains: “Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong. Nothing changed outright. Instead it teetered. You’d pushed futility at Public School 38 so long by then you expected the building itself would be embarrassed and quit.”
Or this: “It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life. Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug. That song, that song, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere.”
And this, above all: “Dylan Ebdus’s friendship with Mingus Rude lived in brief windows of time, punctuation to the unspoken sentences of their days … By the time Dylan saw Mingus again what had happened in between was too much to explain, for either of them. For Dylan sensed that Mingus had his own secret burden, his own changed world beating away under the silence. There was nothing to do but pick up where they’d left off, pool what they still had in common.” All around are the towers of solitude, some real and some self-imposed — the Brooklyn House of Detention, the distant towers of the Manhattan skyline, Dean Street’s one “abandoned house” and the emotional void of Dylan’s grown-up years. When the narrative shifts, midway through, from Lethem’s voice to Dylan’s, it comes as a violent shock. But that’s adulthood, after all, when the mixed and melted images of youth get stuck in the fixations of a fully formed personality. Only by going back and undoing — re-creating — can Dylan be set free, and, even then, you don’t know to what.
“We were in a middle space then,” Lethem concludes, writing of Dylan and his father, but perhaps of Dylan, himself and us all, “in a cone of white … moving forward at a certain speed. Side by side, not truly quiet but quiescent, two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.” Look inside the bottle, as Lethem does, and you’ll see that they’re all alive, not frozen, but moving, just waiting to be brought back to size.
Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.More Peter Kurth.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)