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Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn (original 1999; edition 1999)

by Jonathan Lethem

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,884751,324 (4)145
Title:Motherless Brooklyn
Authors:Jonathan Lethem
Info:Vintage (1999), Trade paperback, Later printing
Collections:Your library, Favorites, Marty's Library
Tags:ALA notable 00, Vintage

Work details

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999)

  1. 60
    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
    The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (InvisiblerMan)
  4. 20
    Men and cartoons : stories by Jonathan Lethem (Smiler69)
    Smiler69: A great collection of short stories by the same author.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 10
    Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block (Darco)
  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 145 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
too much pondering. not enough story. I thought a good detective novel would be a nice change of pace, especially. from Jonathan Lethem but finding out who done it was a long and boring ride. ( )
  mfabriz | Jun 26, 2017 |
Although the actual mystery is perfectly fine, it is the character of Lionel Essrog that makes this book really shine. Lionel suffers from Tourette's syndrome, which causes him to shout out odd and often vulgar phrases. Lionel was rescued along with several other misfit orphans by smalltime hood Frank Minna. When Frank is murdered, Lionel determines that he will find the culprit. This is arguably Lethem’s finest book, both an intriguing mystery and a character study. Lionel’s verbal outbursts can be alternately heartbreaking, cringe inducing, and hilarious. ( )
  dorie.craig | Jun 22, 2017 |
I haven't enjoyed a book this much since Junat Diaz' great novel, The Immortal Life of Oscar Wao. Jonathan Lethem's main character has a voice that is unlike any other any completely authentic, and like Diaz he writes in the first person. The aspect of the book that begs for attention is that the protaganist has Tourette's Syndrome. What may be overlooked in the reviews is how smart and funny he is. I laughed out loud quite often. The plot revolves around a murder which the main character is trying to solve and I frequently went back to re-read sections as the story unfolded. I enjoyed going back almost more than going into the new territory. This is definitely a book that I will keep so I can re-read it one day. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
Lionel Essrog has not been able to catch a break his entire life. Orphaned at an early age. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, which causes him to tic and bark out nonsensical obscenities at the most inopportune times. As the narrator of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s engaging take on the hard-boiled detective genre, Lionel is part of a small band of orphans taken under the wing of Frank Minna, a two-bit hoodlum who runs a decidedly downscale car service/detective agency in downtown Brooklyn. When Frank is murdered, Essrog (aka The Human Freakshow) has to step up his game, from a hapless flunky to a full-fledged investigator, in order to unravel the mystery surrounding Minna’s death. The only thing is that no one has actually asked him to get involved in the case—nobody really takes him that seriously—and the pressure from the self-imposed assignment causes his ticcing tendencies to spin out of control.

This was a highly satisfying novel to read. The basic plot, which involves a complex set of deceptions, double-crossings, and intrigues set in and around a Manhattan-based Zen Buddhist temple, is interesting enough, if somewhat convoluted. Where Motherless Brooklyn really shines, though, is as a character study of someone afflicted with an illness that most of us know very little about. In Lionel, the Tourettic anti-hero, the author has created one of the most compelling protagonists that I have come across in recent fiction. Lethem does a marvelous job of getting the reader inside Essrog’s head to understand the thought processes behind the behaviors. The clipped, playful dialogue throughout the book is spot on and a very effective way to tell the story. Much of the book is also simply hilarious, with a number of laugh-out-loud scenes scattered amongst some otherwise grim events. This was my first exposure to the author’s work, but it definitely will not be my last. ( )
  browner56 | Mar 18, 2017 |
A Private Detective with Tourette's, what could possibly go wrong?

When Lionel is a young orphan he is rescued from his hiding place in the library of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys in Brooklyn by Frank Minna. Frank takes Lionel and three other boys and through employing them on a variety of 'very odd' jobs he turns them into Minna's men; private detectives working out of a limo business.

Minna accepts Lionel's outbursts and tics as just Lionel being Lionel. Despite referring to him a 'Freakshow' Frank does try to help Lionel.
"With the help of Minna’s book I contextualized my symptoms as Tourette’s, then discovered how little context that was. My constellation of behaviors was “unique as a snowflake,” oh, joy, and evolving, like some micro-scoped crystal in slow motion, to reveal new facets, and to spread from its place at my private core to cover my surface, my public front. The freak show was now the whole show, and my earlier, ticless self impossible anymore to recall clearly"

When Frank is murdered after a stake out goes wrong, Lionel sets out to find the killer. Lionel now has to be a real detective as he tries to avoid the unknown killer, Minna's questionable 'Clients' and the homicide detective in charge of the case.

"'She’s going to a precipice, pleasurepolice, philanthropriest
'Shut up, Lionel.'

The detective looked at me like I was crazy.

My life story to this point:
The teacher looked at me like I was crazy.
The social-services worker looked at me like I was crazy.
The boy looked at me like I was crazy and then hit me.
The girl looked at me like I was crazy.
The woman looked at me like I was crazy.
The black homicide detective looked at me like I was crazy. "

Letham manages to create in Lionel a believable character who coping strategies and issues with his Tourette's constantly threaten to derail his investigation and indeed his life. The dialogue is shorty and snappy, much like the 50's pulp fiction crime genre. However it is his clever bouts of introspection that make this much more than a simple who done-it detective story.

" 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 toothbrush in the mirror. I mean, the object looks strange, oddly particular in its design, strange tapered handle and slotted, miter-cut bristles, and I wonder if I’ve ever looked at it closely before or whether someone snuck in overnight and substituted this new toothbrush for my old one. I have this relationship to objects in general—they will sometimes become uncontrollably new and vivid to me, and I don’t know whether this is a symptom of Tourette’s or not. I’ve never seen it described in the literature. Here’s the strangeness of having a Tourette’s brain, then: no control in my personal experiment of self. What might be only strangeness must always be auditioned for relegation to the domain of symptom, just as symptoms always push into other domains, demanding the chance to audition for their moment of acuity or relevance, their brief shot—coulda been a contender!—at centrality. Personalityness. There’s a lot of traffic in my head, and it’s two-way."
( )
  Robert3167 | Mar 11, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 73 (next | show all)
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Jonathan Lethemprimary authorall editionscalculated
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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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 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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