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Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage Contemporaries) (original 1999; edition 1999)

by Jonathan Lethem

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,498591,518 (4)129
Member:sturlington
Title:Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage Contemporaries)
Authors:Jonathan Lethem
Info:Vintage (1999), Trade paperback, Later printing
Collections:Read but unowned, Marty's books
Rating:****
Tags:Private investigators, Tourette syndrome, New York City, Fiction, edition (Vintage), 2004-06

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 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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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.” ( )
  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 |
This book was just ok, not a bad story but could be confusing at times. I read this for bookclub and some of our members couldn't get past the bad language as the main character in this book has tourette's. There were some laugh out loud moments when he was trying to get out a phrase and it came out this rhyming mess of made up words, but then you felt kind of bad you laughed. I think it may have been an insightful look into what it is like to have tourettes but as I’ve never met anyone with the disease I can’t be sure.

Frank Muller did the narration and I am very glad I listened to this one because of Lionel’s ticks and his rhyming sing-songy tourettes and Muller made these very believable, other members of my bookclub said it was hard for them to understand just how these were said in print, so if you are going to read this one I recommend the audio.

2 ½ stars ( )
  susiesharp | Jun 12, 2013 |
A witty, humorous mystery just shy of being insightful. ( )
  Candl | Jun 6, 2013 |
Really interesting book narrated by a detective who has Tourette's syndrome. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jonathan Lethemprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Buscemi, SteveNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For my Father
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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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Wikipedia in English (1)

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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:38 -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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