- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; unknown edition (Oct. 24 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345803396
- ISBN-13: 978-0345803399
- ASIN: 0375724834
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 277 g
- Average Customer Review: 134 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #122,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Motherless Brooklyn: A Novel Paperback – Oct 24 2000
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"The best novel of the year. . . . Utterly original and deeply moving." --Esquire
"Philip Marlowe would blush. And tip his fedora." --Newsweek
"Finding out whodunit is interesting enough, but it's more fun watching Lethem unravel the mysteries of his Tourettic creation. In this case, it takes one trenchant wordsmith to know another." --Time
"Immerses us in the mind's dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle." --The New York Times Book Review
"Who but Jonathan Lethem would attempt a half-satirical cross between a literary novel and a hard-boiled crime story narrated by an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome?...The dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity...Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artisit...Unexpectedly moving." --The Boston Globe
"With one unique and well-imagined character, Jonathan Lethem has turned a genre on its ear. He doesn't just push the envelope, he gives it a swift kick... A tour de force." --The Denver Post
"Wonderfully inventive, slightly absurdist... [Motherless Brooklyn] is funny and sly, clever, compelling, and endearing." --USA Today
From the Inside Flap
From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel.
Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways. Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head. Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.
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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.
Lionel, the detective and narrator of "Motherless Brooklyn", is prone to sudden verbal tics -- he'll start rhyming his own name, for example -- or to adjusting people's collars. This makes him perhaps the most unsuited detective in the history of the genre. He would certainly not be out of place in a Coen Brothers movie (I'm thinking John Turturro here, or maybe Steve Buscemi, who read the audiobook).
Indeed the whole plot is Coen-esque. Lionel and three other characters are runners for a very small-time Brooklyn mob associate named Frank Minna, in the decidedly unglamorous Boerum Hill neighborhood. When Minna is found dead in a dumpster by the Pulaski Bridge (a horribly prosaic fate), his men are hunted one by one, and it's up to Lionel to find out who done it, and why. Jonathan Lethem populates the story with oddly-named characters such as Kimmery and Mr. Foible and Detective Seminole. With a world full of names such as these, it's easy to see why Lionel tics as much as he does.
Along the way are fascinating asides into how Lionel's mind works. He notes that Prince is perhaps the first Tourettic singer, and there's a glorious two page essay on the MAD Magazine art of Don Martin. Lethem also throws in some great New York-specific baseball references (Lee Mazzilli, Bucky Dent), and has Lionel think, while eating soup, "Tinker to Evers to chicken".
The mystery held less of my attention on the second read-through; for some reason, I was more confused than I was the first time. I think the two New Jersey gangsters, Matricardi and Rockaforte (or "Bricco and Stuckface") are a little off-key, but perhaps that's because they both have the overly-precise speech patterns of Joe Mantegna ("We wish to comfort you on this day of pain and misunderstanding...").
On the whole, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a very inventive spin on language, and uses its New York setting extremely well, hitting everything from the pattern of Upper East Side traffic lights, to the solitude of the G train. I dare you read it, and then not have Lionel-esque verbal tics for days afterward. Liable Guessfrog!
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