Jonathan Lethem’s first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, was surreal science fiction painted in the colors of Philip K. Dick but built on the chassis of a Raymond Chandler novel. Successful style-wise, Lethem paid homage to a couple of his favorite writers while getting his feet wet in publishing. Five years later as a writer with four novels and a short story collection under his belt, fully immersed, Lethem produced another novel of detective noir proportion, Motherless Brooklyn (1999). Moving past homage and into singular, personalized fiction, it shows a mature author in control of his craft. But Lionel Essrog is the reason to read.
Though Chandler will haunt the shadows of any private eye story, Motherless Brooklyn is written in Lethem’s own hand. There is a murder mystery, shadowy NYC is the setting, and a fairly typical gamut of plotting—through police investigations, crime figures, and female interests—is run. But the phrasing, the tone, and character portrayal are something different. NYC is brought to minimalist life; the flow of story is more staid, less predictable; and Lionel Essrog is as memorable and atypically heartfelt a character as one can imagine.
Point blank: Essrog is fascinatingly human. Tourette’s significantly more than random cursing, Lethem provides the reader a fully personalized view inside the head of a person living with the syndrome. Linguistically frenetic to say the least, a slew of orthogonal lyricism comes shotgun blast out of the otherwise well-meaning man—along with bursts of swearing and strange insults. A physical reality as well, the tics, twitches, and touching which accompany conflate to create a neurotically realistic portrait of a man dealing with a condition that compulsively forces its way out of him whether he wants it to or not.
As a result, Motherless Brooklyn shows a sense of human realism and wordplay unlike any novel I’ve read. Through the lens of the latter, the usage of language is captivating; both the internalizations and the verbalization of Essrog’s linguistic impulses are eccentric poetry.
“Must still be in Frank’s coat,” I said. “Back at the hospital.” But this triggered a compulsive self-frisking anyway. I patted each of my pockets six times. Under my breath I said, “Franksbook, forkspook, finsblood—“
“Great,” said Tony. That’s just great. Well…
The narrative kept just on the edge of flow by the outbursts and obsessive compulsive behavior, the reader is perpetually frustrated by Essrog’s limitations but through them comes to terms with not only the style of writing but Essrog’s situation. And this is saying something; I may not remember the novel’s storyline the rest of my life, but I will remember Essrog.
But I get ahead of myself: there is a plot to Motherless Brooklyn. Frank Minna, the boss of the detective agency Essrog works for, meets an unfitting end during a simple stakeout operation. Essrog raised an orphan (hence the title), it was Minna who first employed him and treated him like an adult, and as a result the loss touches the very root of the Tourette’s inflicted man’s soul. But it’s precisely the syndrome which won’t allow him to walk away without questions being answered. Who killed Minna, and why? Forever an outsider, onto the gray streets of NYC Essrog goes to solve the mystery—to friends, mob bosses, sandwich makers—chattering and attempting to stifle his impulses every twitching step of the way.
A character study of a man with Tourette’s, the murder mystery trailing around the edges, Motherless Brooklyn is a book that hits at many levels. The discomfort the reader feels from the narrative leading to their understanding Essrog’s situation, the engaging unravel of plot, the obtuse bursts of strangely likeable prose, the personal story of a man who has his guiding light extinguished and must fend for himself—all resonate beyond the page. Both may technically be detective noir, but Gun, with Occasional Music is a piece of Turkish delight while Motherless Brooklyn is a full meal.