by Jonathan Lethem



311pp/$23.95/October 1999

Motherless Brooklyn
Cover by Amy C. King

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Jonathan Lethem has made a name for himself writing offbeat, novels in his own warped style, influenced by authors such as Raymond Chandler or Philip K. Dick. While his latest novel, Motherless Brooklyn maintains Lethem style of character and setting, it completely lacks the science fictional elements which have graced his books from Gun, With Occasional Music through Girl in Landscape. This is the story of Lionel Essrog, a Brooklyn orphan who is taken in by a small-time hood, Frank Minna. What sets Lionel apart from his comrades is that he suffers from Tourette’s syndrome.

Motherless Brooklyn is essentially two books. The first is about Lionel’s affliction and the way he deals with it, the second is about his pursuit of Frank Minna’s murderer. The Tourette’s syndrome is such an integral part of Lionel’s character, however, that Lethem weaves the two together seamlessly. Although it is clear that Lionel is an intelligent character, the reader underestimates his intelligence because of his inability to refrain from shouting out the occasional gibberish rhyme or compulsively tap people’s arms. This underestimation occurs even though the novel is told from Lionel’s point of view.

Following Minna’s murder, the four orphans he befriended, Tony, Daniel, Gilbert and Lionel, attempt to track down his murderer. In the process, their closeknit group dissolves, demonstrating that they were held together by their respect for Minna rather than any friendship between themselves. Lethem is able to use this disintegration of their friendship to mirror the disintegration of their world as well as to plant hints and red herrings about Minna’s murder for Lionel to discover.

Lethem’s Brooklyn is every bit as seedy as the dives of San Francisco he depicted in Gun, With Occasional Music. This is a world in which doormen and hitmen are interchangeable, the local mafioso truly look out for the people in their neighborhood, and Lionel Essrog’s nemesis can be the "Kumquat Sasquatch," a replacement of sorts for the genetically engineered hit-kangaroo from Lethem’s debut novel.

While the mystery surrounding Minna’s death isn’t enough to really grab the reader, Lionel’s character is different enough from the standard protagonist or detective to entice the reader to stick with the novel. His occasional outbursts don’t really hold humor, but they are an interesting, almost stream-of-conscious riff which parallels Lionel’s search for Minna’s murderer.

Motherless Brooklyn is a typical (if such a word can be used) Lethem novel, although some of his fans might find themselves alienated by the lack of fantastic elements they have come to expect.  Lionel's Tourette's syndrome, however, is strange enough that it helps to fill in the sense of otherness that science fiction frequently has.  On the other hand, Motherless Brooklyn should also gain Lethem readers who wouldn't touch a book which has been "tainted" by the science fiction label, and anything which increases awareness of this interesting author is to be applauded.

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