Archive for Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by Nick Merrill

Motherless BrooklynEnglish: Jonathan Lethem at the 2008 Brooklyn ...

I knew I’d like Motherless Brooklyn as soon as its protagonist lost the car he was tailing because he didn’t have an E-Z Pass: a classic noir set piece colliding with modern life. It’s a novel of multifarious identity. Lethem takes a hard-boiled detective story, and casts the tourettic Lionel Essrog as its hero. While paying homage to genre, Motherless Brooklyn manages to be totally unique. As a mystery, it satisfies, but its real strength is in drawing out Lionel’s particularities. He’s a sympathetic and singular protagonist, and watching him operate in Tough-Guy-Brooklyn is fascinating.

It might seem that Lionel’s investigative abilities would be impaired by his tendency to shout nonsense and obscenity. But Lionel is, like Claudius before him, one of those characters whose exterior is at odds with his interior.

Frank Minna, a detective/wiseguy who recruits Lionel and three others from a local orphanage, training them to become the ‘Minna Men,’ is one of the few people who recognizes his intelligence. The entire book is from Lionel’s point of view, so the reader, unlike the other characters, has perfect access to his sharp, insightful mind. But because the world perceives him as stupid, he’s able to be a more competent detective than he might otherwise have been.

The novel begins with the sequence of Minna’s death followed by a flashback which explains Lionel’s troubled childhood and eventual association with the detective agency. When we return the present timeframe, the pace begins to escalate. The ‘Minna Men,’ comprised of Lionel, Daniel, Gilbert, and Tony, scramble pick up the pieces. Lionel jumps right into the case, while Tony seems more concerned with establishing himself as Minna’s successor.

As Lionel follows up leads, he meets the usual assortment of noir characters: wisecracking cops, monstrous brutes, double-crossers, intimidating dons, and corrupt moguls. The Brooklyn of Motherless Brooklyn is a working class, crime-ridden Brooklyn at odds with the surrounding world, and Lethem evokes it beautifully through its characters and its cityscape. He further elucidates its qualities by startling us with descriptions of alternate settings like Manhattan and Maine.

Lethem masterfully layers in rich detail to set the tone. For example, Lionel explains at length why he dines at certain establishments, philosophizing as to the nature of the perfect deli sandwich or hot dog. Lionel has OCD as well as Tourette’s, meaning that he’s always obsessing over detail, but Lethem makes sure that this neurosis is never boring or repetitive. Lionel’s character tics, his constant fear of shouting at inappropriate moments, and his sometimes desire to touch everything in sight, add lovely color to what might have otherwise been a more routine detective story.

Lethem deals with a sensitive issue, and some might accuse him of playing fast-and-loose with the humorous side of Tourette’s. There’s no doubt that Lionel’s symptoms often become punch-lines, but how could they not? He has an absurd disease. The world around him sees him as either an object of humor or annoyance, so while we, the readers, may often laugh at his tendencies, we’re also privy to that sensitive, humanizing side of him which reveals the tragedy of his existence.

Beneath his impulsively obnoxious exterior, Lionel is a smart, normal man. His tics can be satiated if he finds something to immerse himself in. Sex is one activity which allows him to step outside himself and calm down, but due to his nature, he rarely hooks up with anyone.

Frank Minna was a father figure and professional mentor to Lionel, so his death sets off an inevitable transformation. He made Lionel feel competent and useful. Though Lionel’s life under Minna was far better than it had been at the orphanage, he wasn’t self-sufficient. He lived above Minna’s shop, and relied on him and the other ‘Men’ for just about everything. But with Minna dead, he needs to move on and establish himself as an independent force. He needs to prove his capability, and he knows he can do that by finding Minna’s murderer.

Lethem’s prose is clean and effective; it puts us into Lionel’s head and effectively sets the hybrid mood of a comedic noir with an extremely neurotic protagonist. The melding of tone couldn’t have been an easy task, and Motherless Brooklyn convinces; its elements never feel disjointed or schizophrenic.

The book is short and economical. It’s surprising that Lionel’s tics never grate in spite of their potential for repetition. Instead, they simply become a part of the rhythm, while Lionel’s evolving maturity puts them into a continually different light. Almost every element present helps to flesh out Lionel’s character, contributing to a complex, tragic, and humorous portrait.

The character development in Motherless Brooklyn is impressive. It would’ve been so easy and so tempting for Lethem to go for the sentimental, optimistic, overcoming-the-demons ending. But he avoids that, instead showing a mixture of growth and stagnation in his main character, demonstrating life’s mixture of flux and stasis.

As is expected, most of the book’s characters aren’t as complex as Lionel. The other Minna Men could’ve done with more development, especially Tony, whose machinations prove important to the book’s climax. Interestingly, Minna himself, who’s dead throughout most of the novel, comes across as an engaging, three dimensional character: a scheming wiseguy with an unexpected soft side for misfits.

Motherless Brooklyn’s basic plot might not set it apart from other detective novels, but its brilliantly realized protagonist and its artful use of detail does. It’s a comedy which excites, stimulates, and compels.

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