Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Read February 2018
Recommended for fans of slow mysteries, great writing
★    ★   ★    ★  1/2


What is it about Brooklyn? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Joe Pitt in Half the Blood of Brooklyn. Last Exit to Brooklyn. Not to mention a hundred different movies. Something there must spark the imagination, get at the essence of life.

Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most solidly crafted books I’ve read this year. Since it’s the end of February that may not sound like much, so I’ll throw in December and November of 2017 as well. Really, it was just so pleasant to trust in Lethem, with page after page doing fascinating things. I was distrustful at first, I admit; the protagonist has a serious case of Tourette’s Syndrome whiched seemed like an Authorial Big Idea that could go awfully wrong. But it doesn’t. It’s handled with aplomb, with sensitivity, with humor; with an even hand that gives expression to the experience.

“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.”

But a man with Tourette’s is not really what this is about, not really. This is a homicide, a mystery which our protagonist, Lionel, feels compelled to solve. Since his teens, Lionel has worked as a small-time muscle for mentor and eventual friend Frank Minna. Lionel and Gerald are supposed to be back-up support for Frank at a meeting. Things go terribly wrong, and the relationships within Minna’s Men become fragile and uncertain.

“Together [the streets] made a crisscrossed game board of Frank Minna’s alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers—like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)—to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East Side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland—or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard.”

Lionel is a likable hero, Tourette’s and all, driven to explain and organize around him. He’s an observant and humorous narrator, and if he is occasionally led around by his id, he’s aware enough to understand it. Communication is, of course, a challenge for Lionel. I was afraid it would always be played for laughs, or worse yet, for pity, but Lethem has a nice balance between the internal thoughts and the external expression that allows for the occasional laughs with him instead of at him.

“My jaw worked, chewing the words back down, keeping silent. Gilbert’s hands gripped the wheel, mine drummed quietly in my lap, tiny hummingbird motions. This is what passed for cool around here.”

I went in expecting a mystery, and Lethem delivers, certainly. But wrapped up in the mystery is a solid, thoughtful portrayal of man who was given the closest thing to family and companionship he ever knew by a low-level mobster. The mobster, in turn, gets much of his own portrayal, at least from Lionel’s viewpoint. It ends up being a bit of a bromance, or a non-jerk example of the ‘dick-fic’ genre (see The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death). At one point, I realized with some surprised that I was reading a solid literary-fiction kind of book, with beautiful writing and human drama, wrapped up in a mystery.

“The ashtray on the counter was full of cigarette butts that had been in Minna’s fingers, the telephone log full of his handwriting from earlier in the day. The sandwich on top of the fridge wore his bite marks. We were all four of us an arrangement around a missing centerpiece, as incoherent as a verbless sentence.”

Unlike mystery-thrillers, it isn’t a particularly teeth-clenching, anxiety-producing kind of book (except, perhaps, on behalf of Lionel) that requires one to stay up late to read ‘one more page.’ Yet there’s something quite solid about it, curious, moving, wry and intriguing that let me immerse myself whenever I picked it up. I feel like there’s also solid re-read potential here. In fact, I think I will. Might even be worth adding to my own library. Reminds me of Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, and that’s high praise indeed. I’ll have to check out The Fortress of Solitude, also by Letham, when I can handle some straight-up lit-fic.

“Assertions are common to me, and they’re also common to detectives…. Ad in detective stories things are always always, the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations. This or that runs deep or true to form, is invariable, exemplary. Oh sure. Seen it before, will see it again. Trust me on this one.

Assertions and generalizations are, of course, a version of Tourette’s. A way of touching the world, handling it, covering it with confirming language.”

Four and a half–EatmeBailey–tics, rounding up.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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