Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

Published by Doubleday

311 pages, 1999


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Of Mooks and Men

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn is great fun, a rousing private eye novel and a classic quest story, complete with a reluctant hero who must go face-to-face with "monks and crooks and mooks alike" to solve the murder of his mentor.

Lionel Essrog is one of the more unlikely private detectives in crime fiction, except in the most post-modern sense. He's afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes him to shout out -- often scream out -- echolalic phrases that may be scandalous and often are obscene. ("'Stickmebailey!' I shouted.") Stress kindles Lionel's Tourette's. The pressure builds up to an unbearable level, then the dam bursts and a torrent of barbarous sounds thunder forth. Lionel also touches people compulsively and rearranges objects obsessively. To the world, he is at turns intolerable, incongruous and disruptive. Most often he is just a victim of his disorder, helpless in its grasp, having to live with its repercussions. Among its other distinctions, Tourette's means Lionel can never own a cat, because his behaviors "drive them insane."

For most of his 28 years, Lionel has been an operative for New York City's Minna Agency, a sort-of detective firm-cum-limo service that is actually a cover for some nefarious members of the Brooklyn Mob. Under the direction of Frank Minna, a low-level fixer and "mook," Lionel and three fellow misfits -- all orphans rescued by Minna from St. Vincent's Home for Boys ("set on the offramp to the Brooklyn Bridge") in the early 1970s -- run errands and do the occasional odd job in the night. As Lionel explains their work, "Minna Men wear suits. Minna Men drive cars. Minna Men listen to tapped lines. Minna Men stand behind Minna, hands in their pockets, looking menacing. Minna Men carry money. Minna Men pick up packages. Minna Men follow instructions..." Their secret masters appear to be a pair of old Italian gents named Matricardi and Rockaforte. Tucked away in a brownstone mansion, "dressed in matching brown suits," this pair -- reeking with the scent of Mafiosa -- show their appreciation for jobs well done by passing out $100 bills to the orphans as if they were distributing Halloween sweets.

That Lionel became one of Minna's minions was both a fluke and a turning point in his existence. He was "crazy but also malleable, easily intimidated," and thus ripe for a new life. Frank Minna, whom Lionel says "adored my echolalia" because it unnerved his "clients and associates," became Lionel's mentor and introduced him to the outside world of Greater Brooklyn. But it's in an older Brooklyn where he found his identity and purpose, "a placid ageless surface alive with talk, with deals and casual insults, a neighborhood political machine with pizzeria and butchershop bosses and unwritten rules everywhere. All was talk except for what mattered most, which were unspoken rules." No one asks questions in this "motherless Brooklyn"; you might not like hearing the answers.

Minna calls Lionel "Freakshow," yet it is he who is the real enigma. Like the mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein, he has created his children out of these orphans. Still, Lionel figures he owes his all to Minna. As do the other orphans liberated from St. Vincent's with him: Tony Vermonte, "Our Sneering Star," Minna's most likely heir apparent; Danny Fantl, an athlete who was "neither black nor white" and dresses up in lean black suits that Lionel says make him look like "an out-of-work mortician"; and Gilbert Coney, Frank's right-hand man, "a stocky, sullen boy just passing for tough -- he would have beamed at you for calling him a thug."

So when Minna winds up in a dumpster -- knifed and dying, murdered -- his Men, determined to overcome this loss that might well drive them apart, set out to find the killer. And, surprisingly, it's Lionel, rather than Tony, who takes charge. "I dressed in my best suit," he states, "donned Minna's watch instead of my own, and clipped his beeper to my hip," then he begins an investigation that will lend credence to his cover as a detective.

* * *

Before Lionel can get to the business of learning who killed his mentor, though, he must first fill the significant blank spots in Frank Minna's past.

Why, for instance, had Minna disappeared from Brooklyn for two years in the 1970s? He had left with his brother Gerald... and returned accompanied by a wife named Julia, with platinum-blonde hair. "By the time we got to meet her," Lionel recalls, "the two had initiated their long, dry stalemate. All that remained of their original passion was a faint crackle of electricity animating their insults, their dry swipes at one another." And what is the sulking Julia's secret? For 15 years she stayed with Frank in his deceased mother's apartment. Yet on the night her husband died, she packed her suitcase and left for Boston, a "dark and shiny" pistol nestled amid the mass of lingerie in her suitcase. How did she know her husband was dead, if the hospital never called her? Yet she knew it.

And who are the Minna Agency's real clients? Who is behind Matricardi and Rockaforte, and what was the real purpose of all those jobs Lionel and the other orphans did over the last decade and a half? They had been told only "fractured stories, middles lacking a clear beginning or end." The operatives had often gathered information the way other detectives do, with electronic bugs and surveillance cameras. But they'd also once banded together to destroy a Ferris Wheel at an unsanctioned carnival. ("This was the Agency at its mature peak: unquestioning and thorough in carrying out an action even when it bordered on sheer Dada.")

The questions multiply -- and so do the dangers -- as Lionel descends further into the shadows of Minna's life. Why, when he confronts Matricardi and Rockaforte, do those ancient mobsters urge Lionel onward in his quest, but suggest that his goal should be to find the runaway Julia Minna? Who is the mysterious Roshi, an American Zen master with whom Minna spent his last night? Why did Minna insist on being wired for that meeting? And what role in this business is played by a group of Japanese monks from the Fujisaki Corporation?

As all good heroes should, Lionel confronts his personal demons on this quest for justice. Among them is Tony Vermonte, who tells him that "Minna wasn't your partner. He was your sponsor, Freakshow. He was Jerry Lewis and you were the thing in the wheelchair." And then there's Kimmery, a woman with short black hair who guards the Yorktown Zendo (or retreat center) on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which Frank Minna visited on the night he died. Why does she want to romance Lionel, when romance for him has always been both painful and futile? As Lionel explains, "I'd never kissed a woman without having had a few drinks. And I'd never kissed a woman who hadn't had a few herself."

The circuitous, often comical trail that Lionel follows leads him to a menacing, kumquat-consuming Polish giant; provokes one of his fellow Minna Men to start trailing him while he's trailing the murderer; and takes our hero from Brooklyn to the coast of Maine, where he finds a Japanese restaurant called Yoshi's, "Maine's Only Thai and Sushi Oceanfood Emporium." That's where the plot thickens with urchin eggs. Yes, you read that correctly: urchin eggs.

Driven by his sense of obligation to Minna, Lionel Essrog eventually becomes a formidable detective. On the one hand he is a self-described "bubbling brook, a deep well of song," who suffers from "feelings of claustrophobic discomfort and explusive release." But Lionel is also equipped with a superior mind honed by years of reading in the library at St. Vincent's. And giving him that intellect may be the only misstep author Lethem makes in Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel is simply too erudite for his own backstory. His erudition betrays his creator's own sophistication.

* * *

Jonathan Lethem has explored the private eye genre before. Despite its science fiction trappings, his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), was also centered around a private eye -- one more traditional than Lionel Essrog, yet still hardly conventional, since the goons in that book were specially cloned kangaroos, "Joeys" with guns. (His other three other novels, including She Climbed Across the Table and Girl in Landscape, are all anchored in science fiction.)

He clearly loves the private eye genre. In Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem quotes from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and his playing with the genre shows an amused and loving respect for its traditions and conventions. A good example: Just before the mid-point in the story -- when the action should be slowing from all this rising tension -- Lionel relates how two lugs "took me by the elbows and hustled me into a car waiting at the curb." But Lionel isn't scared: "It was eight-thirty in the morning and we were fighting traffic on Second Avenue." Besides, he can't help but be amused by the fact that these putative kidnappers are wearing sunglasses that still sport identical pricetags on their arms: $6.99. Lionel discovers that they're dressed alike because they are students of a Zen cult, "stooges" who do their work service as doormen at a Park Avenue hotel.

Lethem finds that he can follow all of the conventions of a thriller by piggybacking off the more bizarre aspects of Tourette's Syndrome. A neat trick. He writes:

Conspiracies are a version of Tourette's Syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections a kind of touchiness, an expression of the yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close. Like Tourette's, all conspiracies are ultimately solipsistic, sufferer or conspirator or theorist overrating his centrality, and forever rehearsing a traumatic delight in narration, attachment and causality, in roads out from the Rome of self.

The second gunman on the grassy knoll wasn't part of a conspiracy -- we Touretters know this to be true. He was ticcing, imitating the action that had started and allured him, the shots fired. It was just his way of saying: Me too! I'm alive! Look here! Replay the film!

Lethem has great linguistic fun in Motherless Brooklyn. Yet he faces the same problem with Lionel Essrog's irrational and compulsive dialogue that Robert Burns faced in his 1786 poem "To a Mouse," written chiefly in the Scottish dialect, and that Zora Neale Hurston faced with her phonetic spelling of Southern black dialect in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. From page one, the reader is thrown into a world that is at times indecipherable. Faced with violent staccato sounds and formidable word choices, the reader must read at half-speed for comprehension and needs to be committed to this journey. While the Tourette's song-play fades away as the novel progresses -- or perhaps just becomes less noticeable -- finding contemporary readers willing to commit the time necessary to both understand and appreciate this work may be a daunting task.

Remarking on how disruptive his disorder makes him, Lionel Essrog likens himself to "a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker of tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster." He's also one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered in this genre.  | December 1999


FREDERICK ZACKEL is a contributing editor of January Magazine.