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What if Sam Spade had Tourette's?
le 15 décembre 2014
Jonathan Lethem is up there in the heavyweight rankings, with Denis Johnson, Michael Ondaatje, Ron Hansen, Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and of course, the undisputed champion of English prose, Cormac McCarthy. Lethem's always had speed and heavy hands -- I might as well beat the hell out of this metaphor -- but like a lot of talented kids, he got his start in the ghettoes of genre, writing beautifully crafted, high-concept/low-pretense science fiction.
Some truly great novelists have created classics of crime, horror, fantasy, and science fiction that transcend genre: Philip K. Dick's 'A Scanner Darkly', Dashiell Hammett's 'The Maltese Falcon', Richard Price's 'Lush Life', and Neal Stephenson's 'Anathem' are fine examples. With 'Motherless Brooklyn', Lethem showed off those heavy hands to score a 1st Round KO and take the title -- the National Book Award, one of the big ones. Only the Pulitzer Prize carries more prestige, and not by much. He was free of the ghetto, writing big-'L' Literature.
The beauty of this new-found freedom was that Lethem could write science fiction, and show up in the Literature section, as one of many respected subcategories called Speculative Fiction. When Cormac McCarthy wrote 'No Country For Old Men', he wasn't slumming in the crime-fiction ghetto, he was writing the kind of Crime Fiction that exists just across the border from Mickey Spillane's hometown, a twin city just inside Literature's jurisdiction, sometimes home to Paul Auster. 'The Road' -- which won the Pulitzer -- may have seemed like pure post-apocalyptic science fiction, but again, it's 'Speculative Fiction' in the case of a writer like McCarthy... and it's sure as hell Literature. The same applies for Denis Johnson, with the post-apocalyptic Speculative Fiction of 'Fiskadoro' and his "California Gothic" -- a brilliant fusion of Crime and Horror -- 'Already Dead'. 'Motherless Brooklyn' takes Lethem into Crime Fiction territory, playing with the modern archetypes created by Hammett, Chandler and Thompson. It's not like anything you've read before; incorporating elements from classic noir, coming-of-age stories, and dark comedy.
Subverting the tropes of Noir, and Private Investigators like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, the protagonist -- Lionel Essrog -- is a PI who suffers from Tourette's syndrome. He's the exact opposite of Sam Spade, who always knew exactly how to use each scrap of information he found. Keeping his cards close to the vest, revealing just enough to bluff the other person into giving up a name or making a confession. Lionel, on the other hand, is liable to blurt out any dark secret or dangerous name at precisely the wrong moment. His obsessive-compulsive tendencies lock him into meaningless rituals, and secrets that could get him killed are like nitroglycerine in the various echo-chambers of his mind, vibrations building up, threatening to detonate the explosive information he's desperate to contain, getting louder and louder, demanding to be released, and screamed out. Lethem inhabits the mind of a Tourette's sufferer so convincingly and humorously, but does not present Lionel as a mere accumulation of symptoms and strange behaviors; he is a fully-fleshed out character, one of the most fascinating in modern fiction.
Frank Minna, the cool and charismatic mob associate who is murdered in the opening pages, casts a long shadow over 'Motherless Brooklyn'. Using a series of flashbacks, we learn that Lionel and the rest of the 'Minna-Men' -- Frank's crew of errand boys and investigators, using the office of their phony driving service as a base of operations, hangout, and for Lionel, home -- were teenagers when they were recruited by Frank to do the grunt work on his various illegal assignments. Lionel, Gilbert, Danny, and Tony immediately looked up to Frank, finding in him a father, big brother, and role model. Frank and his crew did odd jobs for two old Mafioso's who ruled the neighborhood, but that came to an abrupt end when Frank's mysterious older brother Gerard showed up, only to collect his brother and disappear with him for a couple of long, mysterious years. When Frank returned to Brooklyn, the floundering Minna-men were happy to let themselves be molded into whatever role he saw fit. He also came back married, to a beautiful older girl named Julia, with whom all of the Minna-men secretly fell in love. Frank lost much of his good-natured affability in his time away, without losing any of his charismatic pull.
After Minna's death, Lionel is determined to figure out who is responsible; his friend and fellow Minna-man Gilbert is arrested for killing Frank, serving as extra incentive. Now Lionel has lost Gilbert, his investigative partner, just like Sam Spade lost Archer in 'The Maltese Falcon'; now Lionel has lost his boss and surrogate brother, and is accountable to no one but himself, just like Spade. A Gigantic Polish assassin, his fellow Minna-man Tony, and a Buddhist dojo all figure prominently in Frank's demise, but putting everything together, and exacting some form of justice, seem like distant, abstract things.
What follows is a thrilling, sad, hilarious, and completely unpredictable. Lethem's writing is perfect on every level, including stylistically. The restrained grace of his prose frequently explodes into epic obscenities and mangled freestyle poetry, anagrams and lyrical nonsense, an inspired fusion of Dr. Seuss and William S. Burroughs. I've been reading Lethem's books for a couple years now, spacing them out to savor them. I was almost reluctant to start 'Motherless Brooklyn', since it's regarded by many as his masterpiece. It is. But the good news is that he's still young, and I think he'll be tucking a Pulitzer under his arm, one of these days.