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Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn (original 1999; edition 1999)

by Jonathan Lethem

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,639601,451 (4)139
Title:Motherless Brooklyn
Authors:Jonathan Lethem
Info:Vintage (1999), Trade paperback, Later printing
Collections:Your library
Tags:1990s, crime, noir, New York City, read in 2004

Work details

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999)

  1. 50
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (jeanned)
  2. 30
    The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (InvisiblerMan)
  3. 20
    Men and cartoons : stories by Jonathan Lethem (Smiler69)
    Smiler69: A great collection of short stories by the same author.
  4. 20
    Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas (Bookmarque)
    Bookmarque: Murder & deceit in the underworld...no one has tourette's but it's a great read.
  5. 10
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  6. 10
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  7. 10
    Not Me by Michael Lavigne (ehines)
    ehines: Not me is a different kind of novel than Motherless Brooklyn, but with a very similar spirit. The subject matter is more serious, but the protagonist is a comedian, with an attitude quite similar, to my mind, to the narrator of Motherless Brooklyn.
  8. 00
    Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis (InvisiblerMan)
  9. 00
    The Madman's Tale by John Katzenbach (jeanned)
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    Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (Darco)

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Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
Frank Minna is a neighbourhood owner of a seedy detective agency, or he was until he was found stabbed to death. Lionel, along with Tony, Danny and Gilbert worked for Frank and were often collectively known as Minna Men. The group grow up together in St. Vincent’s Home for Boys and owe a lot to this small time mobster turned private eye. Lionel is determined to find out what happened by Frank.

This is my first Jonathan Lethem novel and I have been keen to read him for a long time. What I heard about Lethem is his ability to combine genre fiction and explore themes in an interesting way. Motherless Brooklyn does just this; under the vial of a hard-boiled detective novel, this also is a coming of age story as well as exploring life with Tourette’s syndrome. Lionel Essrog has lived with Tourette’s for his entire life, manifesting in physical and vocal tics. He is often referred to as Brooklyn’s human freakshow, which only begins to cover the reactions people to have Lionel’s disorder.

I have to admit I knew very little about Tourette’s syndrome going into this novel, I knew the effects but I did not fully grasp what was going through mind of someone living with the disorder. One of the things I love most about reading fiction is learning about the lives of people living in different cultures or living a different life than my own. Motherless Brooklyn allowed me to explore life living with Tourette, it was an eye opening novel.

On the surface Motherless Brooklyn is a pretty simple hard-boiled detective novel, but exploring growing up as an orphan in an all-boys home with Tourette’s makes this novel great. Jonathan Lethem is a brilliant writer; he takes a typical genre plot and explores just how complex the story can be. I believe The Fortress of Solitude does this with comic books (similar to The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), Gun, With Occasional Music with science fiction and Chronic City with drug culture. I have not read these books, so I might be wrong; either way I am keen to check them out.

I am so glad to have finally picked up a Jonathan Lethem book and Motherless Brooklyn was the perfect starting point. I wanted to stay in this world for as long as possible, and I ended up slowing down on my reading. I have since discovered to joys of reading slowly with The Valley of the Dolls, but Motherless Brooklyn may have been my starting point. I have no idea which Lethem book to read next, I might have to try to get to all of them. Motherless Brooklyn was a great book and I loved that it was set in a hard-boiled setting. The combination between the genre style and understanding Tourette’s worked really well for this novel; highly recommend Motherless Brooklyn to everyone.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://www.knowledgelost.org/book-reviews/genre/mystery/motherless-brooklyn-by-j... ( )
  knowledge_lost | Nov 15, 2015 |
Motherless Brooklyn is the first of Lethem’s more well-known novels, and so I was expecting to really like it, particularly after Girl in Landscape left me cold. It follows native Brooklynite Lionel Essrog, who is recruited in childhood along with a few friends from an orphanage (hence the title) by local small-time crook Frank Minna, to be groomed as what Minna styles “private detectives,” but who are actually just goons, thugs, or whatever you’d like to call them. In the novel’s opening scene, Frank is killed, and Motherless Brooklyn revolves around Lionel’s quest to solve the mystery of his father-figure’s murder.

Lionel also has Tourette’s syndrome (much less well-known when the novel was written), and his investigative interviews are hampered by his constant outbursts of verbal nonsense. There’s probably a postmodern reason for this, something to do with investigations, truth, the way our minds tick, etc. But I was never engaged with the novel enough to care. The plot itself is stock-standard crime novel stuff, complete with Japanese mobsters, Brooklyn thugs and an antagonistic homicide detective – although I did like the idea of telling a story from the point of view of one of a mobster’s anonymous thugs, the guys who always lurk menacingly in the background, whom we never think of having their own lives or stories.

Overall I didn’t particularly enjoy Motherless Brooklyn, and if I had to pick one I’d still say Lethem’s best book is As She Climbed Across The Table, although that wasn’t what I’d describe as a great novel. I’ve read Lethem’s first five novels now, and find him to be a frustrating writer – always on the verge of writing something really great, but never quite getting there. Hopefully his next book, Fortress of Solitude, will finally do it. ( )
1 vote edgeworth | Oct 9, 2014 |
Original post at Book Rhapsody.


A De-tec-tic Tale

I am not a fan of detective novels. I am not a fan of a lot of things, if you have noticed through the constant reading of what I write. But I did like watching that Japanese cartoon detective series aired a few years ago on local TV. Detective Conan, yes, that mysteriously shrunken cute boy genius who could solve any crime presented to him thanks to the innumerable convolutions of his brains.

And do detective stories always feature a super intelligent detective? No, I suppose. It’s my first time to read a book explicitly described as a detective tale, so I was expecting the protagonist to have some qualities of the detective cliché: trench coat and fedora, an air of mystery, grave and somber personality, vast knowledge on everything, and a weapon hidden beneath the clothes.

But what we have here is a human freakshow. That’s what our detective Lionel Essrog is called. He is our protagonist, and instead of inheriting at least one quality from any detective, he instead is afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome.

And what is that?

Is guilt a species of Tourette’s? Maybe. It has a touchy quality, I think, a hint of sweaty fingers. Guilt wants to cover all the bases, be everywhere at once, reach into the past to tweak, neaten, and repair. Guilt like Tourettic utterance flows uselessly, inelegantly from one helpless human to another, contemptuous of perimeters, doomed to be mistaken or refused on delivery.

Guilt, like Tourette’s, tries again, learns nothing.

And the guilty soul, like the Tourettic, wears a kind of clown face–the Smokey Robinson kind, with tear tracks underneath.

Simply put, Tourette’s is a set of compulsive behaviors that includes obsessing with repeating tasks and gestures (tapping people’s shoulders), obsessing with counting objects and actions (tapping people’s shoulders four times), and obsessing with wordplay (tapping people, tack it simple). So yes, a Tourettic is an unbeatable wordsmith. He can hammer the phrase “happy together” to “crappy however” and “slappy forget her.” Take note that such a wordplay uncontrollably comes off as a tic, and since the novel is told in the point of view of Essrog, this makes the narrative wild and witty.

Anyway, the novel is set in Brooklyn. Lionel Essrog (Unreliable Chessgrub!), an orphan, was brought under the care of Frank Minna along with three other boys from the same orphanage. The four boys were first hired to do various chores that teenagers can perform, such as carrying crates from a truck to a warehouse, since Frank Minna is running a moving business. This evolved into a car service. Then it became a detective agency, which is not really a detective agency but something else under the guise of a car service.

One afternoon, Frank Minna is murdered. The four boys, being quasi, pseudo detectives, set out to find out what happened. So there’s the, I think, usual clue-finding, suspects, badass men, giant men, old men, conspiracies, generalizations, realizations, and voilà! Case solved.

I think that this is more a psychological case study than a mere crime-detective novel. It is very interesting to see Lionel deal with his Tourette’s while attempting to solve a murder mystery. During his investigations and interrogations, he would tic like crazy, usually favoring “eatmeBailey!” among his set of tic words. Who this Bailey is, we don’t know. If he is someone from Lionel’s murky past, we are never told. Or it could be that Bailey is just a fictional friend as Tourette’s is his Siamese twin.

It is this Tourette’s thing that made me so immersed in my reading of this novel. Lionel’s babbling could make the reader literally laugh out loud. But it is just not a laughing matter. Lionel’s Tourette’s is also a metaphor for a lot of things. The genre of the novel where Lionel moves is very much like his Tourette’s: a struggle to cast off the internal turbulence roiling underneath. It can be also that it is a microcosm of society’s attempt to deal with helplessness and its compulsion to perform its antics.

The last chapter of the novel may have playfully skirted around too much sentimentality, but that doesn’t make Lionel less of a memorable narrator. After finishing this, I felt that the novel is underrated, that it should be given more than what it’s credited for, regardless of notions of gimmick.

And let me tell you something. While I was reading this novel, I felt like laughing at myself because I see some of Lionel’s behavior in my mind’s eye being perfectly acted by myself. Maybe I am mildly Tourettic? And so what? I know one bookish friend who’s singing “All the Pretty Horses” to the tune of “Single Ladies.” ( )
1 vote angusmiranda | Jun 10, 2014 |
Viable guessfrog! Barnamum Pierogi! Garden State Bricco and Stuckface! Pianoctamus! Pianoctamum Bailey!

The plot's a little random, but the book is a joy to read. ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
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Jonathan Lethemprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Buscemi, SteveNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on fillbuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone.
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Ik ben een schreeuwende carnavalsvierder, een veilingmeester, een straatartiest, een mystiek brabbelaar, een senator die brooddronken is van zijn eigen lange redevoeringen.
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Book description
Motherless Brooklyn is a Jonathan Lethem novel published in 1999. It is a detective story set in Brooklyn. Lethem's protagonist has Tourette syndrome, a disorder marked by involuntary tics.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375724834, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:13 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Lionel Essrog has always respected Frank Minna, who helped him out when he was young, and when Frank is found dead, Lionel and his friends, the Minna Men, scour the streets of Brooklyn in search of the killer.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 3 descriptions

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