Motherless Brooklyn - Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem
Vintage Books USA
ISBN: 0375724834 (Amazon Link )

I've read a few Jonathan Lethem novels before, and they are difficult to pigeon hole into a specific genre. Much of his work seems to be SF - using the rule that SF is what I point at - but could just as easily be found shelved under crime, or mainstream literary fiction. Motherless Brooklyn is Lethem's most mainstream novel so far, a straightforward hard-boiled detective story. What makes Motherless Brooklyn unique and interesting is that the first person narrator, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome.

Essrog, The Human Freakshow to his pals, has compulsive urges to reach out and touch things, to straighten, to neaten, to count, as well as the more popularly recognised verbal tics. His inner monologue is touchingly honest, his thoughts always seething with a second voice, one transforming and twisting the words he's using to tell his story. This might sound crass, but at times this can be hilariously funny. At other times, the shame of motley hangs heavy on Lionel, as his compulsions destroy his relationships with those around him. Lionel's Tourette's doesn't read like a gimmick, an excuse for word play, but rather is central to the character and plot, and well handled - never is Lionel just a barker of strange noises.

What makes Lionel's condition utterly incongruous is his role in society - Lionel is a Minna Man. He is one of a small band of orphaned boys from St Vincent's Home for Boys taken under the wing of local career criminal Frank Minna. Minna grooms his impressionable young charges into his Minna Men, his fixers, his be-suited pretend limo-drivers. Oddly, they think of themselves as detectives, though their position in the wider world of organised crime seems clear from early encounters with those high up the chain, those who make Minna polite.

Lionel's world is shattered when he fails Minna on a job, leading to Minna's death, after which Lionel turns detective for real, chasing down the killer of his boss, his father figure, his mentor.

Italian crime lords, gangster's molls, well-run neighbourhoods owing respect to their local VIP - this is mainstream plotting, and it's not very original despite some outings to Zen temples and some decent set pieces. The real star here is Tourette's, and it's the wordplay and emotional impact that elevate this novel above the packed crime shelves. Lethem has always written good prose in my opinion, but he's been very hit and miss with his characters and stories. Motherless Brooklyn reins in the wild ideas, the flamboyant weirdness that characterised his earlier work, settling instead for the impact of just one outre element, and the result is witty, solidly written, well paced, and with a terrific central character - easily his most satisfying book so far.

(I mustn't be the only one to agree, the cover boasts of the Macmillan Gold Dagger and other awards.)

"Lionel, my name. Frank and the Minna Men pronounced it to rhyme with vinyl. Lionel Essrog. Line-all.
Liable Guesscog.
Final Esccrow.
Ironic Pissclam.
And so on.
My own name was the original verbal taffy, by now stretched to filament-thin threads that lay all over the floor of my echo-chamber skull. Slack, the flavor all chewed out of it."

Posted: Sun - September 7, 2003 at 02:43 AM