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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Pop quiz. Please complete the following sentence: "There are days when I get up in the morning and stagger into the bathroom and begin running water and then I look up and I don't even recognize my own _." If you answered face, then your name is obviously not Jonathan Lethem. Instead of taking the easy out, the genre-busting novelist concludes this by-the-numbers string of words with toothbrush in the mirror.

This brilliant sentence and a lot of other really excellent ones compose Lethem's engaging fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel Essrog, a detective suffering from Tourette's syndrome, spins the narrative as he tracks down the killer of his boss, Frank Minna. Minna enlisted Lionel and his friends when they were teenagers living at Saint Vincent's Home for Boys, ostensibly to perform odd jobs (we're talking very odd) and over the years trained them to become a team of investigators. The Minna men face their most daunting case when they find their mentor in a Dumpster bleeding from stab wounds delivered by an assailant whose identity he refuses to reveal--even while he's dying on the way to the hospital.

Detectives? Brooklyn? Is this the same Lethem who danced the postapocalypso in Amnesia Moon? Incredibly, yes, and rarely has such a departure been pulled off with this much aplomb. As in the "toothbrush" passage above, Lethem sets himself up with the imposing task of making tired conventions new. Brooklyn accents? Fuggetaboutit. Lethem's dialogue is as light on its feet as a prize fighter. Lionel's Tourette's could have been an easy joke, but Lethem probes so convincingly into the disorder that you feel simultaneously rattled, sympathetic, and irritated by the guy. Sure, the story is a mystery, but Motherless Brooklyn could be about flower arranging, for all we care. What counts is Lionel's tic-ridden take on a world full of surprises, propelling this fiction forward at edgy, breakneck speed. --Ryan Boudinot --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Hard-boiled crime fiction has never seen the likes of Lionel Essrog, the barking, grunting, spasmodically twitching hero of Lethem's gonzo detective novel that unfolds amidst the detritus of contemporary Brooklyn. As he did in his convention-smashing last novel, Girl in Landscape, Lethem uses a blueprint from genre fiction as a springboard for something entirely different, a story of betrayal and lost innocence that in both novels centers on an orphan struggling to make sense of an alien world. Raised in a boys home that straddles an off-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, Lionel is a misfit among misfits: an intellectually sensitive loner with a bad case of Tourette's syndrome, bristling with odd habits and compulsions, his mind continuously revolting against him in lurid outbursts of strange verbiage. When the novel opens, Lionel has long since been rescued from the orphanage by a small-time wiseguy, Frank Minna, who hired Lionel and three other maladjusted boys to do odd jobs and to staff a dubious limo service/detective agency on a Brooklyn main drag, creating a ragtag surrogate family for the four outcasts, each fiercely loyal to Minna. When Minna is abducted during a stakeout in uptown Manhattan and turns up stabbed to death in a dumpster, Lionel resolves to find his killer. It's a quest that leads him from a meditation center in Manhattan to a dusty Brooklyn townhouse owned by a couple of aging mobsters who just might be gay, to a zen retreat and sea urchin harvesting operation in Maine run by a nefarious Japanese corporation, and into the clutches of a Polish giant with a fondness for kumquats. In the process, Lionel finds that his compulsions actually make him a better detective, as he obsessively teases out plots within plots and clues within clues. Lethem's title suggests a dense urban panorama, but this novel is more cartoonish and less startlingly original than his last. Lethem's sixth sense for the secret enchantments of language and the psyche nevertheless make this heady adventure well worth the ride. Author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 24, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375724834
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375724831
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (302 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College.

He is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.

He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine.

His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's and many other periodicals.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Bill Loehfelm on March 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Pleased to see Lethem's novel won the critic's circle award. Lethem's masterstroke is his narrator; Essrog is utterly believable. Often I wished hard he would just shut up and get on with solving the case, but there was no way I was going to stop reading. A very human reaction to a fictional character. Once you accept the Tourette's as part of the rhythm of the book it becomes a fascinating element of the character. As a former Brooklynite, I found Lethem's depiction of that area dead-on accurate (down to Rusty Staub and "half a fag") and beautifully realized without going over the top. Wonderful choice of words without overdoing it. Brooklyn becomes a main character with as valuable and intimate role in the story as any of the people. By the end I had a hard time believing Lethem was not a Brooklyn raised orphan with Tourette's. An entertaining, compelling and intelligent work. The defintion of excellent fiction.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Margaret Fiore on November 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Lionel is one of four orphans from St. Vincent's who are recruited by a small-time New York hood for grunt work. Afflicted by Tourette's, Lionel drives most people crazy, but he tickles his mentor's sense of humor. All four orphans (the "motherless Brooklyn" of the title) look up to their leader, but Lionel's admiration includes a large component of unstated love.
When his father figure is murdered in the street, Lionel is the only one of the four no-longer-boys with the intellect, loyalty, and determination to find out what really happened.
Previously a science fiction author, in this book, Lethem takes off into reality like a rocket. The only alien landscape we view here is the inside of the Tourette-inflicted mind, and Lionel is as alien as it gets. But his tics and hollers are the fuller realizations of our own small compulsions and fascinations. They bring the reader right into his mind and body. Despite the pace of the action, and constant plot twists and developments (he tells this story walking, alright) his is an internal journey, and very human.
This is an absolutely riveting good book.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Bronzino on August 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This was the first thing I've read by Jonathan Lethem. I have heard that some of his other novels are "hard to get into," but that is definitely NOT the case with Motherless Brooklyn. Lethem's portrait of his protagonist -- a 30-something year old orphan with Tourette's Syndrome, is in-depth, peppered with nuances, and a joy to imagine.
Lethem is an adroit writer. Almost every sentence is a gem. I rarely feel this way about authors -- probably the last time I did was when I read Michael Cunningham's The Hours -- but I savored Lethem's paragraphs. This is not a book to skim.
Of course, the book held other fascination for me as well: I grew up in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn that Lethem did (his sister and I went to the same grammar school) and seeing the neighborhood through his eyes is a treat. But you needn't be from South Brooklyn (or New York at all) to enjoy this novel. The mystery itself -- and the antagonists in the plot -- are reminiscent of Raymond Chandler or Daschiell Hammett: drawn in bold, black strokes with a surrounding aura of cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey.
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53 of 65 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
There I was, reading happily along, totally enthralled by the history of the Minna Men, Lionel's fantastic verbal riffs, the mystery and sadness of Frank's death, Lionel's reaction to it, thinking: man, this book is an instant classic, when BAM! Enter Julia on page 99, and ppppfffft, the air went out of the story for me. She answers the door in a slip and stockings like a Chandler dame, complete with cigarette, gun and "dusty suitcase" full of lingerie. She's a stock character from Central Casting, an anachronistic cliche not worthy of the expectations Lethem has set up, the wonderful idiosyncrasies of Essrog, the individual, distinctive personalities of the male characters. We also leave behind the fantastic descriptions of Brooklyn, the strong sense of place that's part of the magic of the earlier part of the book -- it turns into a straight detective story and plays with genre conventions without adding much in the way of new archetypes or ideas -- the wildly original language continues, but that isn't enough, at least, not for me. Damn. The first 98 pages are BRILLIANT. Next time out, I hope Lethem sustains that level of inventive originality for an entire book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Paul Frandano on April 7, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Like Paul Auster and very few others, Jonathan Lethem is a writer of literary fiction who dramatically alters his chops between novels and, with seemingly little effort, creates, again and again, works that ensnare readers delighting in oddly angled worlds, where a tilted plausibility replaces the stable statistics of everyday expectation. Motherless Brooklyn is delirious, overabundant, delightful creativity, with a strong, supple spine of research on Tourette's Syndrome to render palpably the faux detective Lionel Essrog, an unforgettable creation. This is literary jazz of the highest caliber: Lethem blows twelve bars of melody and takes off on soaring feats of improvisation, but always--whether carefully, or harrowingly, or softly, or howlingly humorously--bringing his daring rhetorical flights back home with great (and intuitively "fitting") imagination.

Some reviewers have invoked the name "Nabokov" with reference to Motherless Brooklyn, praise that is not misplaced. Yes, this novel is squarely in the crime noir genre. Yes, Lethem might have situated his protogonist in any of half a dozen other genres. And, yes, locating a germ of "difference" and building standard materials around it is precisely what makes a "genre." But Lethem's language--and his principal deployer of language, the Tourettic Lionel--is, like Nabokov's in Lolita and Pale Fire, literally miraculous. And the Tourette's difference is, as it must be, integral to the story (which, considered as crime fiction, by the way, is good: populated with believable characters and dialogue, a suitably tangled plot, and honest, satisfying resolutions).

Read this novel. Tell your friends. Make Jonathan Lethem's name familiar in their mouths as household words. His is a gifted new voice that should be widely supported.
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