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on March 14, 2000
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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on November 29, 1999
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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on August 29, 2001
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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on February 20, 2000
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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on November 24, 1999
Lionel Essrog, the central character in Jonathan Lethem's highly entertaining "Motherless Brooklyn," is not your average detective. Lionel is an orphan with Tourette's syndrome. He's a relatively gentle young man whose condition causes him to obsess on small details, gobble down one sandwich after another, tap people on the shoulder five times or yell things at inopportune moments. Lionel is one of four young men from a Brooklyn orphanage employed as drivers and detectives by the mysterious Frank Minna. Minna is a smalltime Brooklyn wise guy worshipped by the four orphans. When Frank winds up dead, Lionel goes on a mission to find his mentor's killer. Lionel may sound crazy, but his condition masks an intelligence few recognize. Frank kept dangerous company, including a nasty brother who practices Zen Buddhism, and two old, decrepit mobsters who worship their long dead mother. Lionel's investigation puts him at odds with his fellow "Minna Men" and endangers his life. By the end of his unorthodox investigation (during which he gets attacked by Zen Buddhists), Lionel has suffers more loss and discovers difficult truths about his friends. Lionel is wonderfully original character - simultaneously likeable and annoying. When he finds love briefly, a reader can't help but be happy for him. But it's just as easy to understand when he gets dumped. "Motherless Brooklyn" succeeds beautifully as a noir novel, but it's more than that. Using Lionel's condition, as well as the colorful speech of Minna, Lethem has a ball with language. Lethem's word play, humor and genre bending - not to mention the use he makes of the Brooklyn milieu - make "Motherless Brooklyn" a great, memorable book.
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Jonathan Lethem is a true original. His latest, "Motherless Brooklyn" manages to spin a tale of orphan misfits, detectives, gangsters and a main character that suffers from Tourette Syndrome into an impressive, rapid paced melee. The descriptions of the Brooklyn area, the characters and all the necessary sensory perceptions needed come through in snappy prose. Lethem's description of the 'impulses' and 'partly contollable' symptoms of Tourette are dead-on. Never has this reviewer read anything that so accurately captures the essence of Tourette and the personality in a novel. The reader can feel the symptoms of Tourette welling up in themselves as strongly as the character does on the page.

Half detective story and half a case study of a young man with Tourette, Lethem intertwines the two deftly, giving the reader little time to breathe between events.

The detective story may be slightly hackneyed and the closeness of the orphans and thier Fagan-like detective mentor could have been more intimately detailed, but Lionel Essrog and his Tourette's make fantastic fodder. Lethem goes for broke. This novel describes Tourette and real life on the streets like no other author has before.
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on February 15, 2000
Lionel Essrog, aka "Freakshow" to his fellow constituents at the L&L Car Service, a front for the L&L Detective Agency, is the Holden Caulfield of this century--if "Catcher in the Rye" had been told by Raymond Chandler instead of Salinger. This Tourette-riddled narrator guides the reader, albeit in a loopy and rapid-fire free association, through his life in Brooklyn. An orphan boy, though we're really not certain if even that is true, he is "adopted" by Frank Minna, an errand runner for unsavory crime figures, and taken under Minna's wing, despite his "freakshow" qualities. When Minna is murdered, Lionel takes it upon himself to find his friends killer. The journey will be one not soon forgotten. Lethem ably and aptly deploys his amazing writing skills once again in his fifth fiction outing. After three consecutive readings, I have chosen this novel as the most important and best novel I have ever had the (repeated) pleasure of laying my eyes and hands on. If you don't read this book, give up reading!
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on April 7, 2001
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.

(Thirteen years after - a reader's/movie lover's lament, turned to delight: Edward Norton has held the rights to Motherless Brooklyn since its publication in 1999, and since that time he has wanted to direct and star in the film adaptation. It now looks like, finally, this will happen. Norton isn't physiologically an ideal Lionel--if Vincent D'Onofrio were 20 years younger... But admirers of the book must eagerly await a Motherless set c. 1954 - who doesn't love that look? No, I can think of only 2 film adaptations I enjoyed more than the [scores of] books I've read that've been made into movies, but I've been waiting for this one since 2001. So...knock wood...2015 may be the year.)
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on January 3, 2000
Like the Balloon Man in Central Park, Jonathan Lethem has taken the straightforward noir detective genre and twisted up a tail, turned out a neck, puffed up a chest and pulled out a pair of wings until it has become a fable for our times. Lionel Essrog is the quintessential Ugly Duckling. Abandoned by his parents, who in all probability could not deal with his Tourette's Syndrome, Lionel grows up in an orphanage. In typical "boys will be boys" fashion, he is dubbed "Freakshow" and denigrated at every turn. Then along comes Frank Minna, a small-time Brooklyn mobster, who become's Lionel's surrogate father. Lionel and his orphan friends become The Minna Men, running errands for the mob, but Lionel remains oblivious to being used. When Frank is fatally shot, even he abandons Lionel to the Code of Omerta, a concept completely alien to a Touretter. With fierce loyalty and a mission to do what is right, Lionel sets out to find Frank's killers. When Minna Men abandon him for other agendas, he simply redoubles his efforts. And just when you think he has found a love interest, one as uncontrolled in her naivete as he is in his speech, even she abandons him. Lionel navigates this sea of human cruelty simply by defining everything in terms of himself. This is raw survival - a novel totally absorbed in the self-consciousness of its protagonist. His jackhammer epithets are at first funny, then discomforting, then annoying, until Lionel brings you full circle into how utterly uncontrollable it all is. You begin to feel devastated when he blurts out secrets that will do him harm. You try to esp insights to him, knowing he knows exactly what to do but just can't help himself. In the end, Lionel has won you over totally and completely. Lethem probably began this novel on a dare - can a writer exhibit the technical wizardry necessary to pull off a protagonist with Tourette's Syndrome. By the end of the book, you can tell that Lionel has won over Lethem as well. Lionel Essrog is a fully realized and achingly human character, a swan, no less.
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on March 29, 2000
If you're going to open up Lethem's most recent offering, Motherless Brooklyn, you'd better make sure you're comfortable. You're not going to be going anywhere for awhile. I can almost guarantee you'll read the first chapter at least twice in a row before moving on. The story itself is more reality based than many of Lethem's other works, but in no way is it any less original. Motherless Brooklyn revolves around a group of unofficial private detectives, quasi-tough guys who have been working together since they were fourteen when they were plucked out of a Brooklyn orphanage by a crime Lord wannabe. The main character, Lionel Essrog, has an unlikely affliction for a private detective: he suffers from Tourette's Syndrome. He is obsessed with words, numbers, touching, and often finds it difficult to control himself. I don't know if it's a natural progression of writing about someone with Tourette's or premeditated, just another stroke of Lethem's usual genius, but the entire novel is written with just the kind of snappy and bouncy rhythym that would please Lionel greatly. It teases you into re-reading sentences and taunts you into peeking at pages you shouldn't be peeking at yet. The action will make you bite your nails and the mystery will render you incapable of putting the book down, but the real beauty lies in Lethem's characterization. Each character is multi-faceted and so human you can see them. You will miss them you're finished. It's been awhile since I've added to my list of favorite literary figures, but I have a new hero now, and his name is Lionel Essrog.
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