Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (1999) is unique. Its narrator Lionel Essrog has Tourette’s syndrome.

Tourette’s causes compulsive actions and speech.

A small-time crook named Frank Minna rescued Lionel and three friends from a Brooklyn orphan’s home. They came to see themselves as Motherless Brooklyn or the Minna Men.

They were gofers, people who did Frank’s busywork.

When Frank got crosswise with the mob, he went to a meeting wearing a wire, and Lionel listened as a huge monster-sized man killed Frank.

Lionel set out to find out who among the several possibilities had ordered the killing.

Along the way, Lionel finds himself at odds with the man who seems to be the most functional of the Minna Men. He learns that the backstory for the murder is more complex than he expected. And he ends up leaving Brooklyn for the first time.

Lionel tells the story in his own fractured way. But the story is not difficult to read. It is clearly written, interesting, and, as I said in the beginning, unique.

Lionel reads detective stories. He sees himself as particularly suited to live in a detective novel--

“Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence? Detective stories always have too many characters anyway.”


“...in detective stories things are always always, the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations.

“...Assertions and generalizations are, of course, a version of Tourette’s. A way of touching the world, handling it, covering it with confirming language.”

Lionel Essrog thinks clearly and often brilliantly. Though his Tourette’s sometimes gets in the way, he’s sees Tourette’s as putting him firmly in the line of fictional detectives like Phillip Marlow.

I expected this to be a book I would remember and enjoy. It was.

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