- Series: Vintage Contemporaries
- Paperback: 311 pages
- Publisher: Vintage (October 24, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345803396
- ISBN-13: 978-0345803399
- ASIN: 0375724834
- 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 (341 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #64,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Motherless Brooklyn Paperback – October 24, 2000
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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
This entertaining play on the hard-boiled detective tale features an unlikely gumshoe with Tourette's syndrome, which compels him to count, tap and make strange vocalizations at inopportune moments. Such ticks could seem gimmicky, but Lethem writes it, and Buscemi performs it, with such style that the compulsions seem an endearing idiosyncrasy (though not to the Tourettic's cohorts, who call him "Freakshow"). Regretfully, it's hard to grasp Lethem's wordplay as it goes whizzing by--Buscemi enunciates at great speed to convey the frenetic activity inside the man's head. Lionel Essrog works with three other young men for Frank Minna's small-time detective agency ("Minna men," Lionel calls them) masquerading as a car service ("No cars!" the boys respond whenever the phone rings). Lionel was saved from an orphanage by Minna, so when his mentor is killed on a job, Lionel is devastated and determines to solve the crime. The chase takes him from a zendo on Manhattan's Upper East Side to a resort on the Maine coast as he follows a character he can identify only as "the giant." Buscemi convincingly conveys the accents of Japanese Zen masters and Brooklyn mobsters, along with Lionel's verbal acrobatics, all without losing the noirish ambience Lethem is gently riffing. Listeners may find themselves unable to turn off their Walkmen and put this one down. Based on the Doubleday hardcover (Forecasts, Aug. 16, 1999).
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
Lionel is regarded as a freak by almost everyone he meets. The exception is Frank Minna, a small-time crook running a series of modest rackets in Brooklyn, who rescues Lionel and three other inmates of his orphanage and enlists them as his "Minna Men," to do odd jobs and tasks for him. Minna runs a fake car service which is a front for a detective agency which itself is a front for various forms of larceny. But as the book begins, Minna is murdered.
Lionel's tics hide a sharp intelligence and a well-defined sense of right and wrong, which makes him the perfect hero. As he tries to get to the bottom of Minna's death, he finds that his behavior gives him a strange advantage. Nobody takes him seriously. But he is intensely serious.
Seen through Lionel's eyes, the world is a strange place. New York City itself, he says, is a "Tourettic city" with its constant scratching and counting and tearing. Lionel has the customary love affair during this book with a sweet girl who seems to understand him and then doesn't. Sex smooths away his tics, the author writes, then supplanting them with the biggest tic of all.
This is one of those books that takes a genre, shakes it up and goes beyond it without ever violating its fundamental rules. I believed totally in Essrog and came to see the world through his eyes.
The first two sections describing how Lionel Essrog's boss Frank Minna met his demise and the reflection on how Minna gathered and honed his "Minna Men" from an orphan's home in Brooklyn was compelling reading. I can tell I have a good book when I feel the need to read past my normal bus stop; then I slow down my reading so I don't finish too soon; This book met those criteria.
Lethem does a very good job of describing his characters and describing their motivations, interactions, and dialog. His description of Brooklyn is also great. Lethem's description of Lionel eating some Uni and a bowl of lemongrass soup is worth the read in itself.
Essrog is the narrator of the story, and it's told from his perspective, in first person. For the first chapter or so, I was annoyed and discomfited by the structure and pacing of the narrative ... it was too "jerky" and disjointed, primarily because of the symptoms of Essrog's Tourette syndrome, but once I grew used to the pacing and flow, it largely ceased to bother me. Although afflicted by Tourette's syndrome, and appearing to others as somewhat less than sane or normal, there is nothing wrong with Essrog's powers of intellect, so you get a sense of someone peering keenly out from behind a damaged exterior.
While nominally a detective story (and a very good one at that), this is also somewhat of a character study, where the flawed Essrog lives among others who are damaged in other ways, and his struggles to find Minna's killer moves him beyond both his own comfort zone and involves him in complex situations where little is as it first appears. As it is difficult to fully develop many of the individuals within the context of a single novel, many are slight caricatures and stereotypes rather than thoroughly developed. But Essrog himself is tremendously appealing, and his disorder only adds to his humanity, and you find yourself rooting for him as the story progresses.
Overall, this is a very good novel, and once you get past its eccentricities, it will suck you in. This book would serve as a good basis for a series of sequels featuring Essrog and his friends, but given that "Motherless Brooklyn" was published in 1999 and there have been no reported efforts by the author toward a sequel, it isn't likely to ever happen. Four stars.