Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathon Lethem (1999) 311 p.

Motherless Brooklyn is the first of Lethem’s more well-known novels, and so I was expecting to really like it, particularly after Girl in Landscape left me cold. It follows native Brooklynite Lionel Essrog, who is recruited in childhood along with a few friends from an orphanage (hence the title) by local small-time crook Frank Minna, to be groomed as what Minna styles “private detectives,” but who are actually just goons, thugs, or whatever you’d like to call them. In the novel’s opening scene, Frank is killed, and Motherless Brooklyn revolves around Lionel’s quest to solve the mystery of his father-figure’s murder.

Lionel also has Tourette’s syndrome (much less well-known when the novel was written), and his investigative interviews are hampered by his constant outbursts of verbal nonsense. There’s probably a postmodern reason for this, something to do with investigations, truth, the way our minds tick, etc. But I was never engaged with the novel enough to care. The plot itself is stock-standard crime novel stuff, complete with Japanese mobsters, Brooklyn thugs and an antagonistic homicide detective – although I did like the idea of telling a story from the point of view of one of a mobster’s anonymous thugs, the guys who always lurk menacingly in the background, whom we never think of having their own lives or stories.

Overall I didn’t particularly enjoy Motherless Brooklyn, and if I had to pick one I’d still say Lethem’s best book is As She Climbed Across The Table, although that wasn’t what I’d describe as a great novel. I’ve read Lethem’s first five novels now, and find him to be a frustrating writer – always on the verge of writing something really great, but never quite getting there. Hopefully his next book, Fortress of Solitude, will finally do it.

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