(awesome) book review: Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

wonderful protagonist in an excellent, odd-duck crime novel

Lionel works at a driver service in Manhattan, which is the front for a detective agency, which is the front for a small-time hood’s operation.  The hood in question, Frank Minna, is murdered in the first few pages, and Lionel seeks to solve the mystery of Frank’s death.  The mystery is compelling and clever in itself.  It throws Buddhist monks, a Polish giant, Italian mafia bosses, and a few orphans into a pot and stirs rapidly.

Add to this a fascinating protagonist:  Lionel has Tourette’s Syndrome, which I have always associated with outbursts of context-inappropriate language.  We view the entire world through Lionel’s tics, the involuntary speech being just one of many.  (It reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, also a great mystery, solved by a child with Asperger’s Syndrome.)  In Lethem’s hands, Lionel’s estrangement from the world around him, both through his Tourette’s and through other disabilities, become effective types for the reader’s (at least This Reader’s) own feelings of alienation and estrangement.

Lethem’s use of language is also delicious.  Take this sentence: “I was dredging up Minna’s usages on any excuse now, as though I could build a golem of his language, then bring it to life, a figure of vengeance to search out the killer or killers.”  (I’m a sucker for golems.)

I thought it was Excellent.

This was the second Lethem book I have read; the first was his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music.  I enjoyed them both a great deal, although that one mixes crime novel with science fiction, and while it does it very effectively, some people are so immediately put off by science fiction that this may be a better starter-Lethem.

Note on content:  The book has lots of strong language, as you’d expect from hoods in Brooklyn.  And one sex scene.

5 thoughts on “(awesome) book review: Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem”

  1. I enjoyed both novels of Lethem’s that you mention, but my favorite of his so far (which made my “15 Favorite Novels Read in ’09” List) is “As She Climbed Across the Table” which is about a young woman physicist who is involved in the creation in a particle accelerator of a void that she names Lack and with which she falls in love, to the dismay of her boyfriend who faces the nightmare of competing romantically with a void that has no characteristics except a peculiar selectivity about what objects it will absorb.

    1. I’m so glad you mentioned that. This is the one I have to read next; I’ve started it and am enjoying it. I think I will gradually work my way through the entire ouevre!

  2. “I think I will gradually work my way through the entire ouevre!”

    I’m sufficiently impressed that I probably will be doing something similar myself; he’s a fine writer and nothing I’ve read so far has disappointed me. And his new novel –“Chaos City” I believe is the title — looks particularly good.

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