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Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn (original 1999; edition 2004)

by Jonathan Lethem

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,854721,340 (4)144
Title:Motherless Brooklyn
Authors:Jonathan Lethem
Info:Faber and Faber (2004), Paperback, 311 pages
Collections:Your library

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
    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 144 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 70 (next | show all)
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 |
This is a brilliant author. The main character has Tourette's syndrome, the story told from his point of view. The writing reflects this in more than meets the eye at first. Four orphans from a local home work for Frank Minna, a small-time gangster, and they mature under his influence. Readers with no experience with the condition will learn quite a bit about Tourette's. The story is realistic with wonderful details. It's about city kids learning more than they already know about the streets, learning to be something more than they thought they could be, becoming adults and trusting in things unseen, trusting in each other, and what happens to them along the way. It's about how other people affect our lives.

I'd suggest reading anything by this author, which I will now do myself.

This book is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

( )
  Rascalstar | Jan 21, 2017 |
This novel is a ton of fun. Made me laugh out loud on several occasions, and it has an underlying tenderness that's really moving. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
(49) A recommendation from a friend. At first this was laugh out loud funny. Four orphans are used as errand boys for a Brooklyn small-time mobster, Frank Minna. He becomes like a father figure to the boys as they age especially to Lionel Essrog who is tortured by his yet unnamed affliction of Tourette's syndrome. As the book progresses the boys are grown and work for Minna as a car for hire service which is a front for their 'detective' work. They then have to solve the case of their life. . .

In general, I enjoyed this novel and found Lionel endearing and hilarious. His deadpan way of narrating his compulsions - smoothing collars, tapping shoulders, petting cats - never mind his verbal explosions -- was really funny. So I really enjoyed the first half of this book. After awhile as I got used to Lionel and his tics did not have the power to shock anymore, the plot just seemed to get a little random and the mystery did not hang together for me. Lionel all of sudden seemed to put things together yet said reader was clueless as to how he came to the proper conclusions about what was going on. Anyway, I was ready for things to wrap up and I liked the very end. But the climactic scenes and the the last 1/3rd were the achilles heel for me.

Overall, I can respect the National Book award and I enjoyed this. I don't laugh out loud while reading very often. ( )
  jhowell | Dec 17, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
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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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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