Dylan Edbus is small, blond, a blip of a person. He is the only white kid on Dean Street--a street "strewn with bottle caps half-pushed into the softened tar," a street illuminated, at night, by flickering streetlamps and the dull, indirect cast of "underlit parlor ceilings glowing through curtains like sculpted butter"--and, against the odds of his circumstance, he manages to survive in his thuggish neighborhood, without major incident, by sheer intuition. He develops a street dexterity at an age when he would not even know what dexterity means: He is six. When Dylan agrees to let Robert Woolfolk--"Fuck you looking at?"--take his bike for a spin around the block, Dylan rightly expects never to see it again. When Robert disappears around the block, and doesn't return, Dylan experiences the kind of sinking sorrow that darkens so many childhood afternoons. And it devastates Dylan's faith in the physical world: "It was pretty much as if there had never been a bike."

Although its role is small, the bike--"a blind chrome elk loaded with his parents' expectation and Dylan's dread"--is a unique object in this book, because it's one of the few things that links the world outside Dylan's house to the world within it. (After Dylan's father recovers the bike from a junk heap, it sits in the hallway of the house, untouched.) Again and again in The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem's brilliant and thoroughly imagined new novel, the author returns to the driving concept that the worlds we live in are divided and self-alienating and incalculably small, and he dramatizes this by constructing a world outside of Dylan's house and a world within it that are coexistent but immiscible.

As a piece of history (it is the 1970s) and as a metaphor, it is fitting that Dylan's neighborhood is gentrifying; like wet plaster, Dylan is blank, adaptive, and impressionable. Shadowed behind his intuitive fluency--his ability to function under several sets of social rules--is an isolation that arises from being in so many worlds at once and, therefore, belonging to none of them entirely.

The book does not organize itself around a central conflict or a fixedly clever plot. Instead it follows the paradoxically rapid and interminable trajectory of childhood. For most adults, childhood is a gauzy, ghostlike memory, or a couple of compressed memories--"a pocketful of days distorted into legend"--and one of Lethem's major achievements is that he renders, with fullness and affection, the length of a day, and of a week, and of a year, in the life of a child: the physical defeats, the raw deceptions, the unbodied emotions that constitute unwitting experience--and, somehow, impossibly, he manages to articulate the ways in which the scars and regrets of childhood can resurface, years later, with fresh pain.

The Fortress of Solitude does not announce itself as a beautiful book. The jutting, embossed-foil cover text is off-putting; the description of the novel on the inside jacket flap is jangled and pretentious; and the themes that the book addresses (race, childhood, family relations, friendship, sexuality, class, criminal recidivism, regret) are such hardboiled and perfervid topics--so typical and polarizing and boringly American. The reason The Fortress of Solitude doesn't sink under the load of its own meaningfulness is, simply, because of Lethem's prose, which is weightless. There is a cartoonish exuberance in the narrative delivery--thematically underscored by the fact that Dylan is a comic-book fan--and the first 300 pages of the book proceed at a kind of bubbly clop, full of "bug-drunk afternoons," "sun-blobbed trees," "baublelike sunfish," "pearish" Puerto Ricans, "snow-thick roofs," "disappointingly lozengelike, hamburger-hard tits," and the "blond lunar pancakes" of four sets of mooning ass cheeks. Even when the narration changes hands--Dylan himself narrates the latter sections of the book--the diction remains constant, if slightly matured. During cocaine-addled intercourse, Dylan describes the skin of the woman he's holding as "smooth and sheeny, so rubbery I wondered if it was somehow an effect of drug-dust between my fingers and her skin. She was plush and uncreased, like a marzipan animal."

It is a heavy, heartfelt book, but it ends perfectly--which is to say, not cleanly. It is an illustration of Lethem's powers as a novelist that the book has so much lift, that reading it feels like flying.

Jonathan Lethem reads at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) on Mon Sept 22 at 7:30 pm.