American writer Jonathan Lethem came to critical attention last year with the publication of The Fortress of Solitude. It was an ambitious coming-of-age novel set in his own childhood stomping-ground of Brooklyn, New York, and following the lives of Dylan Edbus, his friend Mingus Rude, and the other residents of their neighbourhood through the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, as their lives become intertwined with, amongst other things, graffiti art, comic books, drugs, hip-hop, bullying, racial tension, and a ring that gives them magical superpowers. It was a maddeningly uneven book – daring, evocative and poignant, but also meandering, and afflicted with a grandness of tone which often left you frustratingly distanced from the clamour of Brooklyn. Perhaps this was Lethem re-creating Dylan's 'fortress of solitude' as he hustled through his hostile urban childhood. The sections in which the magic ring features also sat uneasily in what was otherwise a meticulously realist narrative.
Men and Cartoons, a slim volume of nine short stories, sees Lethem revisiting many of his preoccupations from Fortress, but on a more intimate scale. In the opening story, 'The Vision', the thirty-something protagonist finds himself living next door to Adam Cressner, a boy he had known of at school,