Author, Book review, Fiction, Jonathan Lethem, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Motherless Brooklyn’ by Jonathan Lethem


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books USA; 336 pages; 2000.

Motherless Brooklyn opens with a small-time mobster, Frank Minna, dying of fatal gunshot wounds, leaving his limo service cum detective agency rudderless. One of his underlings lands in jail and two others vie for his position.

Lionel Essrog, one of four orphan boys taken in by Frank years earlier to help run the ‘agency’, feels his world falling apart. Determined to find out who killed Frank — and why — leads him on an unforgettable and highly dangerous adventure involving gangsters, Japanese monks, the victim’s angry widow, a giant and a garbage cop.

To complicate matters further, Lionel has Tourette’s syndrome, so that he cannot just blend into the background: everything he does is peppered with gunfire verbal barking and annoying repetitive motions (for instance, touching people’s collars over and over). Is it any wonder he is known as the Human Freakshow?

Eventually, after following several false leads, Lionel begins to realise how he has been conned by a man who was not the fine upstanding citizen he had lead the orphans to believe he was. But still Lionel plods on to discover the truth about Frank’s (life and) death while trying to avoid the bullets and the bashing that may bring his own life to a distinct and bloody end.

All in all, Motherless Brooklyn wasn’t the book I had expected it to be. How I had wanted to love it! I had heard so many good things about it, I was totally convinced that I would find it difficult to put down.

But, for one reason or another, this novel failed to live up to my (high) expectations. Which is a shame.

In many ways, the surreal nature of this book reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk’s stuff. The writing is highly inventive and, at times, laugh out loud funny.

The characters are quirky, if a little on the creepy side, but totally convincing. Similarly, the plot is well structured and believable.

The setting is also authentic and perfectly captures the seedy, watch-your-back side of Brooklyn life. It feels suitable grungy, dangerous and unpredictable.

What, then, was the problem?

As a reader I think I just failed to identify with any of the characters. I did not feel for Lionel’s predicament, I did not really care whether he solved the crime and so, when I put this book down I found it difficult to pick up again. There was nothing propelling me to read on.

While I appreciated Lethem’s ability to capture Lionel’s verbal tics so very well (a literary feat in itself, twisting the language in clever, unexpected ways), the ‘trick’ wore thin after awhile and began to bore me. It felt a little like a one-trick pony.

And as much as I always enjoy reading about other worlds, the world presented in this book was a little too full-on male – violent, macho and red-blooded – for me.