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Motherless Brooklyn Paperback – October 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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The opening scene is on a par with the best of pulp fiction. Eating White Castle sliders daintily arrayed in a row of six (a compulsive aspect of his neurosis), Lionel Essrog stakes out an Upper East Side Zen studio with his associate Gilbert Coney, with the two of them standing guard as their boss Frank Minna is inside, wired for sound and exchanging cryptic arguments with some unknown heavy. It's at this point that everything goes wrong, and the ensuing chase scene through Queens and murder in Brooklyn provide one of the novel's highlights.
Lionel and Gilbert are just two of the four orphans hired (adopted, really) by Minna for a detective agency masquerading as a car service. (One of the recurrent gags is the group's supply of creative explanations to prospective customers for the lack of cars.) As a Minna Man, Lionel finds a father figure and a family where his Tourette's is not ignored but nevertheless accepted; Tony's pet name for him, "the free human freak show," serves more as a term of endearment than as a slur and indicates Minna's moderately disguised understanding that Lionel is the savviest of the bunch (Minna's estranged wife tells Lionel the reason Minna finds him useful is because everyone thought he was "stupid").
It's the interplay of the characters and Lionel's bumbling entry into adulthood that provide most of the novel's interest. As for the noir-inspired plot: there's hardly a cliche that Lethem doesn't send up--Italian mobsters and an evil corporation, the intrusively clueless police officer and a traitorous colleague, a sequence of red-herring clues and an offstage murder. ("Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories have too many characters anyway.")
Yet the crime story itself never lives up the dizzying pursuit of the opening scene, and Lethem faces the difficulty of writing a parody of authors who themselves wrote masterful parodies (e.g., "The Thin Man," "The High Window"). Instead, the potboiler elements play shotgun both to Lethem's neurological-intellectual wordplay and to the emotional growth of his lead character. Lethem's novel has "too many characters anyway," and he resists the temptation to let the mystery gum up the works.
That's not necessarily a bad thing--unless you're expecting an old-fashioned whodunit or keystone caper. But Lethem's novel is less a whodunit than a howdunit--or, in this case, how the author does it: creating an affecting protagonist whose tongue twitches with the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist.
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.)