by Jonathan Lethem
Whenever I feel like I’m being unoriginal with my writerly tics — similar words and phrases that often appear without thinking — I am comforted when I notice it in others. And in a novel all about tics, the unintentional bonuses are that much more entertaining.
In my last Lethem review, I noted his use of kangaroos in more than one novel — Gun, With Occasional Music and You Don’t Love Me Yet. In YDLMY, the kangaroo’s name is Shelf. In Motherless Brooklyn, written eight years earlier, there’s “a big indifferent loaf of cat” named Shelf.
Shelf’s not all that important to the plot, other than to further illustrate Lionel Essrog’s Tourette’s Syndrome. Tics, tics, everywhere.
Lionel grew up in Brooklyn at the Saint Vincent’s Home for Boys. One afternoon, a small-time mobster, Frank Minna, recruits him and three other boys for errands, mostly moving items from Point A to B. They are each paid $20 and a beer. Minna becomes a father figure to the boys as they grow up continuing to work for him, his “Minna Men.” Each serves a different role, Lionel’s most often being the “Freak Show.”
Minna is prone to grand tales and advice, puffing himself up to more importance than he has in the larger scheme of New York “business,” but he also seems to enjoy counseling the Men as proteges. Occasionally, he allows his personal life to show:
“Thing is, for me a woman has to have a certain amount of muffling, you know what I mean? Something between you, in the way of insulation. Otherwise, you’re right up against her naked soul.”
When Minna is killed under strange circumstances, Lionel decides to find out what happened. The journey has him patting and exploding with a mishmash of words while he accumulates information. He ends up following and avoiding a giant, unnamed man who seems intent on killing him and his co-workers, and trying to figure out the area Zen center’s secrets. With their leader gone, the Minna Men each have concerns for their future, with varying ideas of what they should do about it.
“The ashtray on the counter was full of cigarettes, butts that had been in Minna’s fingers, the telephone log full of his handwriting from earlier in the day. The sandwich on top of the fridge wore his bite marks. We were all four of us an arrangement around a missing centerpiece, as incoherent as a verbless sentence.”
The writing really is something else, and while the plot itself is plenty interesting and action-filled (the whole book takes place over just a couple days), I most enjoyed Lionel’s descriptions of his condition. In a roundabout way, I can relate to being fixated on certain foods (says the person who has peanut butter on toast almost every morning), and I most certainly feel better about the world after the right song or when I form lists in tidy increments of five. Tourette’s, OCD and addictive personalities — we’re all cousins on this lovely crazytrain.
“Prince’s music calmed me as much as masturbation or a cheeseburger. When I listened to him I was exempt from my symptoms. So I began collecting his records, especially those elaborate and frenetic remixes tucked away on the CD singles. The way he worried forty-five minutes of variations out of a lone musical or verbal phrase is, as far as I know, the nearest thing in art to my condition.”
The only part of the book that didn’t quite work for me was the introduction of Kimmary, a student at the Zen center. Sure, meeting her provides Lionel with some information that he needs, but she doesn’t feel like the only way he could have discovered the same information. I’m not sure — Maybe if I reread the book, I’d feel differently, but my first impression was that she was just a heavy-handed way to say, “Hey, look, people with Tourette’s can get some action too!”
Still, Motherless Brooklyn deserves all its acclaim and further demonstrates that Fortress of Solitude is not the only great novel Jonathan Lethem has written. Brimming with more elegant descriptions than I could include in this review, I strongly suggest you check out this compelling New York tale.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.
This review was also published on Pajiba on March 26, 2010.