Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

Book list Here's a detective story with a unique twist: the narrator-protagonist, Lionel Essrog, out to solve the murder of his boss and mentor, suffers from Tourette's syndrome. Lethem's latest novel is a seriocomic takeoff on the genre that breaks down barriers by getting inside Lionel's head. It also tosses Zen Buddhism and the Mafia into the mix, treating both with a serious irreverence that other writers often shy away from. The plot's a simple one: someone has set up Frank Minna, the shady owner of a Brooklyn car service cum detective agency, for a hit. Years earlier, Minna had plucked four misfit teenagers from St. Vincent's Orphanage and chose them to be his errand boys. Now, as grown men, they work, or rather worked, for Minna as drivers/detectives. (Minna Men, declares Lionel.) One night, Lionel and another of the four, Gilbert Coney, stake out a Zen center on New York's Upper East Side while Minna, wearing a wire, goes in for a conversation. The upshot is that they screw up and Minna is "taken for a ride" and murdered in Brooklyn. Who ordered the hit? Was it the Zen abbot or perhaps two ancient Brooklyn godfathers who may or may not be homosexual lovers? Lionel's description of the investigation--complete with Tourette tics and observations--is a tour de force of language. The descriptions of the buildups to the tics are masterful, and the tics themselves, especially the verbal ones, are in the best tradition of the Zen non sequitur--thus neatly, and securely, tying the narrative and the plot. But the interesting thing is the subtle way in which the verbal outbursts work upon the reader: at first you are stunned, but in time, as with his colleagues, Lionel's strange behavior and outbursts merely extend the boundary of normal behavior. --Frank Caso

From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Library Journal The short and shady life of Frank Minna ends in murder, shocking the four young men employed by his dysfunctional Brooklyn detective agency/limo service. The "Minna Men" have centered their lives around Frank, ever since he selected them as errand boys from the orphaned teen population at St. Vincent's Home. Most grateful is narrator Lionel. While not exactly well treatedÄhis nickname is "Freakshow"ÄTourette's-afflicted Lionel has found security as a Minna Man and is shattered by Frank's death. Lionel determines to become a genuine sleuth and find the killer. The ensuing plot twists are marked by clever wordplay, fast-paced dialog, and nonstop irony. The novel pays amusing homage to, and plays with the conventions of, classic hard-boiled detective tales and movies while standing on its own as a convincing whole. The author has applied his trademark genre-bending style to fine effect. Already well known among critics for his literary gifts, Lethem should gain a wider readership with this appealing book's debut. Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/99.]ÄStarr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Publishers Weekly Hard-boiled crime fiction has never seen the likes of Lionel Essrog, the barking, grunting, spasmodically twitching hero of Lethem's gonzo detective novel that unfolds amidst the detritus of contemporary Brooklyn. As he did in his convention-smashing last novel, Girl in Landscape, Lethem uses a blueprint from genre fiction as a springboard for something entirely different, a story of betrayal and lost innocence that in both novels centers on an orphan struggling to make sense of an alien world. Raised in a boys home that straddles an off-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, Lionel is a misfit among misfits: an intellectually sensitive loner with a bad case of Tourette's syndrome, bristling with odd habits and compulsions, his mind continuously revolting against him in lurid outbursts of strange verbiage. When the novel opens, Lionel has long since been rescued from the orphanage by a small-time wiseguy, Frank Minna, who hired Lionel and three other maladjusted boys to do odd jobs and to staff a dubious limo service/detective agency on a Brooklyn main drag, creating a ragtag surrogate family for the four outcasts, each fiercely loyal to Minna. When Minna is abducted during a stakeout in uptown Manhattan and turns up stabbed to death in a dumpster, Lionel resolves to find his killer. It's a quest that leads him from a meditation center in Manhattan to a dusty Brooklyn townhouse owned by a couple of aging mobsters who just might be gay, to a zen retreat and sea urchin harvesting operation in Maine run by a nefarious Japanese corporation, and into the clutches of a Polish giant with a fondness for kumquats. In the process, Lionel finds that his compulsions actually make him a better detective, as he obsessively teases out plots within plots and clues within clues. Lethem's title suggests a dense urban panorama, but this novel is more cartoonish and less startlingly original than his last. Lethem's sixth sense for the secret enchantments of language and the psyche nevertheless make this heady adventure well worth the ride. Author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Library Journal Lethem follows up the successful Girl in Landscape with another on-the-edge tale: hero Lionel Essrog, a victim of Tourette's syndrome (which has been showing up a lot in fiction lately), comes under the protection of a local tough named Frank Minna and then must investigate Minna's mysterious death. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.