Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn was a book I purchased several years ago that has sat on my TBR shelf collecting dust. Thank goodness that is no longer the case because this little book was thrilling, captivating, and tenderly subtle. Published in 1999, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, an entirely deserving recommendation.
Lionel Essrog is a “carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster” – in short, he has Tourette’s. He’s also one of a gang of orphans – called Minna Men – who have found a family and pseudo-father figure in Frank Minna, small-time Brooklyn mobster. When Minna is killed, Lionel – the Human Freakshow – begins to question his fellow Men and decides to strike out on his own in a gritty detective story that plays homage to Ray Chandler and other ‘hard-boiled’ crime novelists.
Lethem’s novel is the best love story I’ve read all year. Perhaps because the love he writes isn’t between fictional man and fictional woman, but rather between a novelist and wordplay, a writer and his heroes, a man and his home. Lionel’s Tourette’s allows Lethem the ability to turn phrases and create word mash-ups that would make “Glee” weep – ‘spread by means it finds, fed in springs by mimes, bled by mingy spies’. This wordplay also ensures that Lionel transcends beyond gimmicky plot device and becomes someone we respect and trust – he’s the only reader of the bunch having spent most of his solitary hours in boyhood hiding in the orphanage’s library reading every single book. Quoting directly from Ray Chandler’s novels, Lionel offers the perfect vehicle for Lethem to show readers his affinity for those novelists who came before without coming off as a second-rate imitation hiding behind the tenuous at best pronouncements of adaptation, retelling, or sequel.
What Motherless Brooklyn accomplishes most successfully is sense of place. Appropriate since our backdrop is pronounced boldly on the cover. So many authors have written beautiful prose and lyrical imagery devoted to Manhattan, but so often forget the boroughs that are much more the heart of NYC. Lethem puts you on the streets of Brooklyn from the ‘70s through the ‘90s – the corner shops and deli sandwiches, the ethnic neighborhoods, the crime, the dirt, and eventually the gentrification. You’ll want to walk the very same streets and meet the people who make Manhattan run everyday but can’t afford to live in the astronomically high rents of Soho or the Upper East Side. You’ll walk away with the same Us vs. Them attitude the denizens of the outer boroughs feel on a daily basis – or so says my Queens-raised husband.
A word of warning – the big mystery of who killed Frank takes a back seat for me. The whodunit is predictable and all the characteristic clichés of this sort of detective novel are present – shady mobsters, lady bombshell, underhanded deals, and huge scary men with no names. Motherless Brooklyn isn’t trying to create a new mystery, only trying to tell the mystery in a different way so that we see the people, the places, and periphery around the central mystery that so often lingers in the background lost in the need to develop page-turning plot. These elements, though always essential, hardly ever get to share the limelight in much the same way that writers are overlooked as we sit glued to the explosions and salacious scandals produced by film and television directors, actors, and producers. Highly recommended.
Now that I’ve recommended this novel to all of you, I’d like to challenge those of you who’ve only visited the Manhattan idea of NYC to walk, drive, or take a ferry to each of the outer boroughs. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and enjoy strolling through the picturesque streets and the beautiful brownstones of Brooklyn; head over to Flushing, Queens and enjoy some of the tastiest Asian food you can get in this country; take in a Yankees game, visit the zoo, or tour of some NY’s highest rated college campuses in The Bronx; and the Staten Island Ferry is one of the top experiences you can have in NYC – the best photo opportunity for the Statue of Liberty – and once you reach the island you’ll discover the finest Italian food and some of the friendliest NYC natives. Plus, the prices are cheaper!
Share some of your favorite things to do outside of Manhattan in the comments!