Posted by: Gregg | August 15, 2006

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem

This is a good one, gang. I read this on the plane back from Hawaii and, after finishing it, got the same feeling I did when I finished “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, which is one of my all-time desert island books. This is a rare gem – one of those books that takes an overdone genre (detective noir) and elevates it to High Art.

The protagonist here isn’t a detective. Not a proper one, anyway. Lionel Essrog is an orphan who fell in with a group of friends as a kid doing scutwork for a low-level Brooklyn mobster, Frank Minna. After he’s forced to leave the city for several years, Minna comes back, remaking himself and his crew into amateur detectives. He’s mysteriously killed while on a stakeout one night, and Lionel resolves to find his mentor’s killer.

There’s one catch – Lionel has Tourette’s Syndrome.

I know it soulds like a setup for a bad Farrelly Brothers film, but it works. Lionel’s mind is obsessive, endlessly seeking patterns out of what he sees and hears, which is exactly what a detective does. He has to uravel Frank Minna’s past while dealing with his disease, tapping people on the shoulders and blurting out the words that dance in his head. It almost works to his advantage, actually, as he’s seen by people he meets as a mere freakshow, not capable of figuring things out.

The city of Brooklyn is not only the setting of the novel but a participant itself – the romanticized city of Essrog’s past competes with its present-day counterpart, the former mobster’s paradise reluctantly forcing itself to change and evolve with the city around it. Lethem writes urban poetry that can be taken either as a good detective yarn as well as something much greater. One of my best reads of the year and worth checking out from your library.



  1. my friend, have you read ‘the fortress of solitude’? if not, you must.

  2. No, but after this one, it’s absolutely on the list. I’ve always had my eye on Lethem not just because he’s got the literary cred, but he also uses pop culture and comics as sources in his novels. Apparently “Fortress” is even better than “Brooklyn”, so you know I’ll be all over that. And I’ll be sure to post my review when I do read it.

    Congrats on the kidlet, by the way!

  3. my friend, fortress is one of the best novels i’ve read in my life.

  4. Very high praise from someone who’s opinion on such things I respect.

    I’ll start it this weekend.

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