Summer Book Review

This month’s review is by Richard Bellikoff

Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

I’m from Queens, but Brooklyn is just a short ride away via the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. That thoroughfare and others are the locations of a long car chase scene that opens this novel, culminating in the murder of a small-time mobster who has recruited four young men from a local orphanage to work in his various shady businesses. One of the orphans, Lionel Essrog, sets out to find the murderer.

What separates this from any other whodunit is Lionel’s Tourette’s Syndrome. Lethem avoids the simplistic caricature of the Tourette’s sufferer as someone who just blurts out sexist and racist epithets. Lionel is far more interesting than that.

He bristles with odd tics and compulsions, engaging in ritualistic touching and counting of objects and people. In his mind and his mouth, words rearrange themselves in startling and sometimes amusing ways. Dubbed Freakshow by his fellow orphans, he’s a one-man Greek chorus to his own thoughts and actions. Unexpectedly, Lionel’s struggle to control his Tourettic impulses helps him concentrate on the clues he needs to solve the murder mystery.

All this could be tedious in the hands of a lesser writer, but Lethem has pulled off a literary high-wire act. He simultaneously pays homage to the detective story and subverts it. Hard-boiled crime fiction has never seen the likes of Lionel Essrog, and neither have you. There’s no better reason to read this engrossing and entertaining novel.


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