While some of us claim to have a mind-body problem, Lionel Essrog, the anti-hero of Motherless Brooklyn and a sufferer of Tourette’s syndrome, has a more fundamental quandary: a mind-mind problem. It is as if he is inhabited by an army of words crazily refracted through inversions, improvisations, and profanity that occasionally succeed in mounting a coup and escape into the world, “tickling reality like fingers on piano keys.” In addition to the full-time occupation of keeping his unusual disorder under control, Lionel has another problem to worry about: someone has killed his boss and he has to unravel who is responsible that is, before he unravels into a spaghetti of fantastic nonsensical utterances.
Half of the pleasure of reading this novel is appreciating the inventiveness of Lionel’s Tourettic brain. Jonathan Lethem renders these impromptu displays of manic wit with admirable skill, such that the sign “Yorkville Zendo” triggers the following string of associations: “Don’t know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me!” Or consider Lionel’s riff on his own name: “Lionel Essrog. Line-all. Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pissclam.” As one would expect, Tourette’s tends to trip up Lionel’s crime solving strategies, although occasionally his obsessive habits come in handy.
Besides constructing Motherless Brooklyn on the basis of an indisputably unique premise, Lethem also succeeds in conveying the rhythm, language, and geography of Brooklyn. Frank Minna, the mastermind of his own detective-agency-cum-car-service, is a small fish in a veritable aquarium of colorful Brooklyn gangsters and wise guys who swagger and swap stories on Smith street. Lionel, Tony, Gil and Danny, otherwise known as “Minna’s Men,” are his official sidekick posse, plucked from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys at an impressionable young age and trained in the ways of shuffling around mysterious merchandise, no questions asked. As a former resident of Carroll Gardens, I can practically hear Frank’s intonation as he berates Lionel and Gil, who don’t carry guns at the express wish of their boss:
“That’s what I count on. That’s how I sleep at night, you have to know. You with no gun. I wouldn’t want you chuckleheads coming up a stairway behind me with a hairpin, with a harmonica, let alone a gun. I’ve got a gun. You just show up.”
Frank’s wife, who sounds like a reluctant vamp out of a Raymond Chandler novel, is equally charming. Other characters to watch for are Mr. Matricardi and Mr. Rockaforte, old school Brooklyn mobsters, who preside over their empire from the dusty velvet depths of an immaculately preserved parlor Matricardi’s mother’s parlor, to be precise, with “matricide” hovering just one Tourette’s tic away. Smith, Degraw, Court, and Bergen streets form the grid within which the central characters operate, names that are familiar to any Carroll Gardens denizen.
In fact, the novel has achieved minor cult status on its home turf. Residents and curious visitors from faraway worlds such as Manhattan snoop around looking for the L & L Car Service, the storefront for Frank Minna’s so-called detective agency on Bergen St., or seek out Zeod’s deli (a reference to Ziad’s deli on Smith St.), where Lionel orders his extra-special turkey sandwiches on Frank’s credit. According to a recent article in Time Out magazine, the local book store, Book Court, has sold over 1,000 copies since October.
The irony of the book’s success is that the small-time mobster subculture that Lethem describes has almost vanished. For the past two years, Smith Street has been heading upscale, and is now dotted with boutiques and restaurants, such as Patois, that boast $20+ entrées. I wonder if Frank Minna, whose mother ran a homestyle “catering” business out of her cramped, sauce-encrusted apartment, would feel out of place here. Or maybe he would take it in stride, order up a Chardonnay, and sit out on the sidewalk with the new generation of Brooklyn bohemians.
This is not to say that Motherless Brooklyn is only for New Yorkers. On the contrary, its ingenious detective novel plot, zippy cartoon-inspired language, and memorable characters will earn the novel fans all over the planet. There is even a romantic subplot or two. I’ve recommended the book to everyone I know, and no one has been disappointed.