Trouble Thinking

June 16, 2010

Book Review: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — Chris @ 10:30 pm

I am hopelessly out of the loop when it comes to book releases. With movies or games, only a few are released each week, and even less of those are worth paying any attention to, so it’s much easier to stay appraised of what’s out when. With books, and to a lesser extent comics, the process isn’t so simple. So many are released so often, that I have trouble keeping up—if I’m even aware at all. Combined with the fact that I’ve yet to find a reliable source or website to help direct me towards novels that may match my interest, means I typically stumble across books haphazardly, long after others have read and absorbed them, and moved on to something else (or that’s how it feels anyway).

All of this is my way of saying that Motherless Brooklyn came out awhile ago—1999 awhile ago. I just read it though, so now I’m going to talk about it, and you can’t stop me. I mean, I guess you could stop reading, but please don’t do that; I only have like three readers as it is. Thank you.

Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog, an orphan whom years ago, alongside three other boys from his orphanage, was unofficially adopted by a small-time Brooklyn hood named Frank Minna, who for all intents and purposes grooms them to become his loyal henchmen. After they grew up, Minna employed the boys, now known as his “Minna Men,” as an equally small-time detective agency, hidden under the cover of a car service. As the novel opens, Minna is killed by an unknown assailant, and Lionel decides that it is up to him to uncover the mystery behind his boss/father figure’s death. Oh, and one other thing: Lionel has a severe case of Tourette Syndrome.

Described in a blurb like that, Lionel’s illness sounds like a cheap gimmick to spice up what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill detective novel. In Jonathan Lethem’s hands, however, Lionel’s Tourette’s becomes the focal point of the story, delving deeply into how the various tics, vocal utterances, and OCD compulsions and obsessions of Tourette’s affect how he thinks about, and interacts with, the world around him. Lethem must either know someone with Tourette’s, or did some serious research, because he goes into phenomenal, engrossing detail regarding the condition, and what it feels like to be on the producing end of the various symptoms. For someone like me, who knows almost nothing about Tourette’s, I found it an enlightening look into a disability I had only heard about as a bad joke in equally bad movies.

This is only my second Lethem novel, the first being his sci-fi noir tale Gun, With Occasional Music. While both are detective stories, Motherless Brooklyn adopts a much lighter tone than the earlier novel. Despite being a tale revolving around murder, revenge, orphans, and the effects of a severe mental illness, it really isn’t all that grim. Many of the minor characters that enter the story seem almost intentionally absurd, and while I certainly wouldn’t describe the book as tongue-in-cheek, there is definitely something deliberately off-kilter going on that I found endearing.

Motherless Brooklyn received a lot of praise when it was released, and I can certainly see why. It is an exciting, exceptionally well written murder mystery, which in the character of Lionel Essrog, finds a unique, likeable, and incredibly sympathetic protagonist who you will remember for some time. I highly recommend it.

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