Motherless Brooklyn (1999)

by Jonathan Lethem

Lionel Essrog is an unlikely protagonist. He has Tourettes syndrome and is given to involuntary, often obscene, outbursts and bizarre behaviors like repeatedly tapping peoples shoulders. Placing him in a murder mystery, Jonathan Lethem manages to make Lionel endearing even as hes annoying. Frank Minna, the small-time hoodlum for whom Lionel works at a nominal detective agency in Brooklyn, is murdered in the first chapter. Among “Minnas Men” — the four misfits Frank has employed for grunt work since they were teenagers in an orphanage — Lionel, now age 33, is the most determined to solve the murder of the only father figure they had. He not only shows guts in going up against Franks dangerous associates but also an intelligence that his peculiar disability had masked.

Lionel’s irregular investigation involves him in risky confrontations with Minnas zen master brother, two aging mobsters, and an evil Japanese corporation. Conforming with detective story conventions, Lethem lets Lionel solve the crime, but Motherless Brooklyn is much more than a detective story. It is a romp of language, from Lionels nonsensical word associations to the colorful dialogue of streetwise Brooklyn. It is a depiction of Brooklyn in all its grittiness. Most of all, it is a compelling character study of a man whose humanity transcends his tics and idiosyncrasies.  

Few books are recognized as best of the year in both literary fiction and crime fiction. Motherless Brooklyn won both the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the 2000 Gold Dagger award for crime fiction.

Home               My reviews               My friends' reviews