Jonathan Lethem,
Motherless Brooklyn
(Doubleday, 1999)

Motherless Brooklyn marks my first time reading a Jonathan Kethem novel. It won't be my last. The book -- published in 1999 -- is a truly gripping, fantastic read, with a first-person protagonist unlike any other I've come across. This is largely due to the fact that Lionel Essrog has Tourette syndrome, a disorder that causes him to involuntary tic nonsense phrases like "Eat me, Bailey," fondle other peoples' faces, arms and shoulders, and tap inanimate objects a certain number of times -- upwards of five or six -- because he simply has to.

Lionel, who grew up in an orphanage, would eventually identify with the Minna Men, a select group of parentless individuals who would embark on shady missions with twentysomething Frank Minna at the helm. Having little understanding in what they were actually doing, the boys would conduct stakeouts, eavesdrop on conversations through wiretapping and other secretive activities.

Calamity strikes, however, when Frank is mysteriously murdered on one of the missions. Because the group was (as per usual) given no details on the assignment, none of the four have a clue where to begin their investigation -- save for Lionel, who Frank may or may not have pinged with pertinent information using his last dying breath.

Can a sheltered, reserved dude who has little understanding in how Brooklyn (and the world) works AND who must bout with constant stress-induced attacks from his disorder really solve a murder mystery?

The story itself -- the puzzle Lionel voluntarily decides to pursue on his own terms -- is OK. Rather, it's riveting up to a point (a good majority of the book, at least), but ultimately cracks under the pressure of not satisfying what it presumably built itself up to be.

Though this is the case, it isn't as detrimental as you may be expecting. Lionel happened to be such a memorable, fun character to read that he could have been involved in just about anything -- similar to this story or another entirely -- and I probably would have enjoyed the thing. I developed a respect for his child-like wonderment, his struggles to meet people and form meaningful relationships without being labeled a "freak show" and especially his efforts to "keep it cool" when the pressures of a situation forces him to scream "Fishnog!" or something comparable.

You're on his side to solve the case, of course. But his effort to move on in a world without parents -- and without the man who basically could be considered his father -- carries about the same weight.

The book easily comes recommended by me. I look forward to reading more Lethem.

review by
Eric Hughes

26 September 2009

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