The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem (Vintage, $14.95). The author of Motherless Brooklyn returns with a tale about a white kid, Dylan Ebdus, and a black kid, Mingus Rude, coming up in a racially charged section of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Here's a slice of public school life as experienced by Dylan: "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. The ones who couldn't read still couldn't, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors. The place was a cage for growing, nothing else. . . . You met zones everywhere. The schoolyard was neighborhoods: black, black girl, Puerto Rican, basketball, handball, left behind. Through the Cyclone fence someone had brushed the word FLAMBOYAN in white paint on the stone wall, along with a square box for a strike zone. Bruce Lee was famous now that he was dead."
And Now You Can Go, by Vendela Vida (Anchor, $12.95). This novel begins like a murder mystery: "It was 2:15 in the afternoon of December 2 when a man holding a gun approached me in Riverside Park." The me in question is a grad student named Ellis; the man holding the gun says "I want to die." Then he says: "I want to die with someone." Ellis has to think of something, fast. "I find myself rambling to him about Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan'. . . . I switch to Frost and talk about that line about two roads diverging in the woods. 'That line is quoted in so many yearbooks.' Surely he went to high school and had a yearbook, right? 'Well, sometimes I wonder if Frost is being ironic, that it doesn't matter what road you . . . ' I stop with that thought. William Carlos Williams is good, I think. More positive." Turns out the poetry really can save your life; at least it saves Ellis's. But why? What's she supposed to do now? She goes as far as the Philippines to find out. Vendela Vida is the co-editor of the Believer magazine and the author of a nonfiction book, Girls on the Verge. She's also, for those who care about such things, the wife of Dave Eggers of McSweeney's fame.
Old School, by Tobias Wolff (Vintage, $12). The author of This Boy's Life delivers a novel set in 1960 at an elite New England boys' prep school where "it was understood that some of the boys might get a leg up from their famous names or great wealth, but if privilege immediately gave them a place, the rest of us liked to think it was a perilous place. You could never advance in it, you could only try not to lose it by talking too much about the debutante parties you went to or the Jaguar you earned when you turned sixteen. And meanwhile, absent other distinctions, you were steadily giving ground to a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn't done for yourself. That was the idea." One surefire way to earn attention, at school if not in the larger world: Win the sixth-form literary contest. "To make your mark as a writer was equal as proof of puissance to a brilliant season on the gridiron." But how far is the novel's young protagonist, a boy not possessed of fortune or famous name, willing to go to realize his literary ambition?
W.H. Auden's Book of Light Verse, preface by Edward Mendelson (New York Review Books, $17.95). If the news is getting you down (and why wouldn't it?), you might find relief in this collection assembled by W.H. Auden in 1937 as part of the Oxford poetry series. As Auden's literary executor Edward Mendelson notes in his preface, Auden sought out "the work of poets who were fellow citizens with their neighbors, not liberators, legislators, or leaders. . . . partly to provide an entertaining textbook of literary history that emphasized a tradition that could be traced back from his own poems through the work of Byron, Pope, and Chaucer, with contributions from dozens of poets known only as 'Anon.,' derived not only from books but also from oral tradition, broadsides, and tombstones, a tradition that comprised ballads, limericks, nonsense verse, sea chanties, barroom songs, nursery rhymes, epigrams, spirituals, and the songs sung by soldiers, laborers, criminals, and tramps." Here's "On a great Election" by Hilaire Belloc: "The accursed power which stands on Privilege/ (And goes with Women, and Champagne and Bridge),/ Broke -- and Democracy resumed her reign: (Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne)."
-- Jennifer Howard