“Tell your story walking.”
St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, Brooklyn, early 1970s. For Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. The Human Freakshow, a victim of Tourette’s syndrome (an uncontrollable urge to shout out nonsense, touch every surface in reach, rearrange objects), Frank Minna is a savior. A local tough guy and fixer, Minna shows up to take Lionel and three of his fellow orphans on mysterious errands: they empty a store of stereos as the owner watches; destroy a small amusement park; visit old Italian men. The four grow up to be the Minna Men, a fly-by-night detective agency-cum-limo service, and their days and nights revolve around Frank, the prince of Brooklyn, who glides through life on street smarts, attitude, and secret knowledge. Then one dreadful night, Frank is knifed and thrown into a Dumpster, and Lionel must become a real detective.
As Lionel struggles to find Frank’s killer—without letting his Tourette’s get in the way—he’s forced to delve into the complex, shadowy web of relationships, threats, and favors that make up the Brooklyn world he thought he knew so well. No one—not Frank, not Frank’s bitter wife, Julia, not the other Minna Men—is who they seem. Not even The Human Freakshow.
All of the Lethem touches that have thrilled critics are here—crackling dialogue, sly humor, dizzying plot twists—but they’re secondary to wonderfully full, tragic, funny characterizations, and a dazzling evocation of place. Indeed, Brooklyn—with its charming folkways and language, its unique style of bad-guy swagger and sentimentality—becomes itself a major character.
Motherless Brooklyn is a bravura performance: funny, tense, touching, extravagant. This novel signals the coming of age of a major American writer.
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
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Some smart, talented writer was going to figure out what Joycean possibilities for wordplay Tourette’s syndrome affords, and I’m so glad Lethem got there before David Foster Wallace. This book is on the (very) surface an affectionate literary updating of the noir novel, but its genius lies in its depiction of its central character—Lionel Essrog, an orphaned young man afflicted with both Tourette’s and hero worship—and its other central character, Brooklyn. This is a page-turner that’s antic, funny, scary, and distinct. Lethem’s ability to defy genre pigeonholes is special, and Motherless Brooklyn is his best book yet.—Mark Winegardner