Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
The critically-acclaimed young Brooklyn writer, Jonathan Lethem, has come up with some fairly original notions for novels. In As She Climbed Across the Table, for instance, a woman physicist falls in love with an artificially created nothingness, a rift in the universe she calls Lack – which makes a difficult rival for Professor Philip Engstrand, the man who would woe her. With Girl in Landscape, a thirteen-year-old emigrates with her family to the Planet of the Archbuilders where the natives have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneel.
So what do you do for an encore after producing a few kinky novels like that? The answer for Jonathan Lethem was to write a mystery, Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, a story that may be a good deal more accessible to the average reader than his earlier work. The hero of Motherless Brooklyn is Lionel Essrob, an orphan with Tourette’s Syndrome, nicknamed Freakshow, who is apt to bark, tic compulsively, and use the English language in startling ways. With three other veterans from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, Lionel works for small-time hood Frank Minna, a modern day Fagan who run’s a limo service and detective agency . . . until he is murdered and Lionel, Tourette’s and all, must solve the case.
The search for Frank’s killer takes Lionel out of Brooklyn on a merry chase to a Zendo in Manhattan and eventually to a fishing village in Maine. Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of noir misfits – Gil the Garbage Cop, Julia the mobster’s sexy wife, Kimmery the innocent flower-child student of Zen, and two mob bosses named Matricardi and Rockaforte. Which is not to mention a crew of Zen monks dressed up like New York doormen, a Japanese real estate corporation where a lot more is going on than meets eye, and the St. Vincent orphans themselves, the enlisted Minna Men who have serious quirks of their own.
Motherless Brooklyn is a page-turner, but not for the mystery, a take-off on the classic detective novel that is the least convincing aspect of the novel. The fun here is the language, the fabulous flow of Brooklynese that’s augmented by Lionel’s fanciful fits of Tourette’s, where a simple phrase such as “place of peace” can become instantly transformed into “prays of peach, plays of peas, press-e-piece.” The effect is positively Shakespearian, and best of all, Lethem has the good sense to know when enough’s enough.
This is a fun book, occasionally delirious but with enough truth to keep the story grounded. In a time when the corporate media has made most of what we read today fairly much the same, it’s a joy to come across writing that is so original and full of high spirits. If you’ve been wondering where the good young writers have been hiding themselves, give Jonathan Lethem a try.
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