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Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn (original 1999; edition 1999)

by Jonathan Lethem

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,799671,369 (4)143
Title:Motherless Brooklyn
Authors:Jonathan Lethem
Info:Vintage (1999), Trade paperback, Later printing
Collections:Marty's Library
Tags:2000s, New York City, Noir, ALA, 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
    The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (InvisiblerMan)
  6. 10
    Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block (Darco)
  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)
  10. 00
    Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (Darco)

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» See also 143 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 65 (next | show all)
I was pretty entertained when I read this - it had some of the humor that Absurdistan tried to have and, well, failed. The descriptions of the orphanage in NY were insightful. The boys didn't live like Dickens but their circumstances were not necessarily much better. Tony's adoption by the Quaker family was poignant, and it, too, made me think: do these young people and others like them want a family, or after a certain age, do they only think they want a family? And growing up in an orphanage - what chance to these young boys have to have a decent life when they grow up? They don't have much of a basis for becoming doctors and lawyers and professionals. But they are entrepreneurs!

Lionel, the central character around whom most of the action happens, has Tourette's syndrome. His syndrome is a part of him: it defines his actions (obsessively hitting the dashboard 6 times because there are 6 Krystal burgers in the bag) and it never lets him forget it exists. I think that's an insight I gained from this book - when you have a disability of whatever genre, you can't think it away. Your friends and family will have their own lives in their own skin and they will be able to see and adapt to your disability when you are there, but you cannot escape it.

Several humorous parts come to mind - young Lionel finding that he must kiss the boys in the orphanage (part of his Tourette's), the absurdity of moving pieces of furniture and band equipment out of trucks and moving vans and into warehouses and apartments (reminds me of Existentialist plays and their brand of L'Absurde), and the six doormen who realize that they are not thugs. (They're students in a Zen studio, but that's a whole different story!)

Definitely recommend it as a fun, quick, quirky read. ( )
  threadnsong | Jun 18, 2016 |
I liked this quite a bit but didn't ever feel an urgency to read it- hence the 3 stars. Great characters though. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
I loved this book, my favorite by Lethem. Great update on the detective story. ( )
  richardross79 | Jun 1, 2016 |
(From Publisher's Weekly) Raised in a boys home that straddles an off-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, Lionel is a misfit among misfits: an intellectually sensitive loner with a bad case of Tourette's syndrome, bristling with odd habits and compulsions, his mind continuously revolting against him in lurid outbursts of strange verbiage. When the novel opens, Lionel has long since been rescued from the orphanage by a small-time wiseguy, Frank Minna, who hired Lionel and three other maladjusted boys to do odd jobs and to staff a dubious limo service/detective agency on a Brooklyn main drag, creating a ragtag surrogate family for the four outcasts, each fiercely loyal to Minna. When Minna is abducted during a stakeout in uptown Manhattan and turns up stabbed to death in a dumpster, Lionel resolves to find his killer. It's a quest that leads him from a meditation center in Manhattan to a dusty Brooklyn townhouse owned by a couple of aging mobsters who just might be gay, to a zen retreat and sea urchin harvesting operation in Maine run by a nefarious Japanese corporation, and into the clutches of a Polish giant with a fondness for kumquats. In the process, Lionel finds that his compulsions actually make him a better detective, as he obsessively teases out plots within plots and clues within clues. Lethem's sixth sense for the secret enchantments of language and the psyche nevertheless make this heady adventure well worth the ride. ( )
  zenhead | May 11, 2016 |
Lionel Essrog is one of the more unlikely private detectives in crime fiction, except in the most post-modern sense. He's afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes him to shout out -- often scream out -- echolalic phrases that may be scandalous and often are obscene. ("'Stickmebailey!' I shouted.") Stress kindles Lionel's Tourette's. The pressure builds up to an unbearable level, then the dam bursts and a torrent of barbarous sounds thunder forth. Lionel also touches people compulsively and rearranges objects obsessively. To the world, he is at turns intolerable, incongruous and disruptive. Most often he is just a victim of his disorder, helpless in its grasp, having to live with its repercussions. Among its other distinctions, Tourette's means Lionel can never own a cat, because his behaviors "drive them insane."

For most of his 28 years, Lionel has been an operative for New York City's Minna Agency, a sort-of detective firm-cum-limo service that is actually a cover for some nefarious members of the Brooklyn Mob. Under the direction of Frank Minna, a low-level fixer and "mook," Lionel and three fellow misfits -- all orphans rescued by Minna from St. Vincent's Home for Boys ("set on the offramp to the Brooklyn Bridge") in the early 1970s -- run errands and do the occasional odd job in the night. As Lionel explains their work, "Minna Men wear suits. Minna Men drive cars. Minna Men listen to tapped lines. Minna Men stand behind Minna, hands in their pockets, looking menacing. Minna Men carry money. Minna Men pick up packages. Minna Men follow instructions..." Their secret masters appear to be a pair of old Italian gents named Matricardi and Rockaforte. Tucked away in a brownstone mansion, "dressed in matching brown suits," this pair -- reeking with the scent of Mafiosa -- show their appreciation for jobs well done by passing out $100 bills to the orphans as if they were distributing Halloween sweets.

That Lionel became one of Minna's minions was both a fluke and a turning point in his existence. He was "crazy but also malleable, easily intimidated," and thus ripe for a new life. Frank Minna, whom Lionel says "adored my echolalia" because it unnerved his "clients and associates," became Lionel's mentor and introduced him to the outside world of Greater Brooklyn. But it's in an older Brooklyn where he found his identity and purpose, "a placid ageless surface alive with talk, with deals and casual insults, a neighborhood political machine with pizzeria and butchershop bosses and unwritten rules everywhere. All was talk except for what mattered most, which were unspoken rules." No one asks questions in this "motherless Brooklyn"; you might not like hearing the answers.

Minna calls Lionel "Freakshow," yet it is he who is the real enigma. Like the mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein, he has created his children out of these orphans. Still, Lionel figures he owes his all to Minna. As do the other orphans liberated from St. Vincent's with him: Tony Vermonte, "Our Sneering Star," Minna's most likely heir apparent; Danny Fantl, an athlete who was "neither black nor white" and dresses up in lean black suits that Lionel says make him look like "an out-of-work mortician"; and Gilbert Coney, Frank's right-hand man, "a stocky, sullen boy just passing for tough -- he would have beamed at you for calling him a thug."

So when Minna winds up in a dumpster -- knifed and dying, murdered -- his Men, determined to overcome this loss that might well drive them apart, set out to find the killer. And, surprisingly, it's Lionel, rather than Tony, who takes charge. "I dressed in my best suit," he states, "donned Minna's watch instead of my own, and clipped his beeper to my hip," then he begins an investigation that will lend credence to his cover as a detective.

* * *
Before Lionel can get to the business of learning who killed his mentor, though, he must first fill the significant blank spots in Frank Minna's past.

Why, for instance, had Minna disappeared from Brooklyn for two years in the 1970s? He had left with his brother Gerald... and returned accompanied by a wife named Julia, with platinum-blonde hair. "By the time we got to meet her," Lionel recalls, "the two had initiated their long, dry stalemate. All that remained of their original passion was a faint crackle of electricity animating their insults, their dry swipes at one another." And what is the sulking Julia's secret? For 15 years she stayed with Frank in his deceased mother's apartment. Yet on the night her husband died, she packed her suitcase and left for Boston, a "dark and shiny" pistol nestled amid the mass of lingerie in her suitcase. How did she know her husband was dead, if the hospital never called her? Yet she knew it.

And who are the Minna Agency's real clients? Who is behind Matricardi and Rockaforte, and what was the real purpose of all those jobs Lionel and the other orphans did over the last decade and a half? They had been told only "fractured stories, middles lacking a clear beginning or end." The operatives had often gathered information the way other detectives do, with electronic bugs and surveillance cameras. But they'd also once banded together to destroy a Ferris Wheel at an unsanctioned carnival. ("This was the Agency at its mature peak: unquestioning and thorough in carrying out an action even when it bordered on sheer Dada.")

The questions multiply -- and so do the dangers -- as Lionel descends further into the shadows of Minna's life. Why, when he confronts Matricardi and Rockaforte, do those ancient mobsters urge Lionel onward in his quest, but suggest that his goal should be to find the runaway Julia Minna? Who is the mysterious Roshi, an American Zen master with whom Minna spent his last night? Why did Minna insist on being wired for that meeting? And what role in this business is played by a group of Japanese monks from the Fujisaki Corporation?

As all good heroes should, Lionel confronts his personal demons on this quest for justice. Among them is Tony Vermonte, who tells him that "Minna wasn't your partner. He was your sponsor, Freakshow. He was Jerry Lewis and you were the thing in the wheelchair." And then there's Kimmery, a woman with short black hair who guards the Yorktown Zendo (or retreat center) on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which Frank Minna visited on the night he died. Why does she want to romance Lionel, when romance for him has always been both painful and futile? As Lionel explains, "I'd never kissed a woman without having had a few drinks. And I'd never kissed a woman who hadn't had a few herself."

The circuitous, often comical trail that Lionel follows leads him to a menacing, kumquat-consuming Polish giant; provokes one of his fellow Minna Men to start trailing him while he's trailing the murderer; and takes our hero from Brooklyn to the coast of Maine, where he finds a Japanese restaurant called Yoshi's, "Maine's Only Thai and Sushi Oceanfood Emporium." That's where the plot thickens with urchin eggs. Yes, you read that correctly: urchin eggs.

Driven by his sense of obligation to Minna, Lionel Essrog eventually becomes a formidable detective. On the one hand he is a self-described "bubbling brook, a deep well of song," who suffers from "feelings of claustrophobic discomfort and explusive release." But Lionel is also equipped with a superior mind honed by years of reading in the library at St. Vincent's. And giving him that intellect may be the only misstep author Lethem makes in Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel is simply too erudite for his own backstory. His erudition betrays his creator's own sophistication.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
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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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