by Jonathan Lethem
Lionel Essrog is an unlikely protagonist. He has Tourette’s syndrome and is given to involuntary, often obscene, outbursts and bizarre behaviors like repeatedly tapping people’s shoulders. Placing him in a murder mystery, Jonathan Lethem manages to make Lionel endearing even as he’s 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 “Minna’s 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 Frank’s dangerous associates but also an intelligence that his peculiar disability had masked.
Lionel’s irregular investigation involves him in risky confrontations with Minna’s 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 Lionel’s 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.
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