Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

DATE FINISHED: September 25th, 2011             

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Four teenagers from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys are singled out by small-time crook Frank Minna, and together perform whatever dubious tasks are set them with a sense of pride: they are the Minna Men.  When Minna is murdered, Lionel Essrog (Tourette’s sufferer, social outcast and general figure of fun), is determined to find out who is responsible, and why.  Figuring out who he can trust is another matter altogether…

THOUGHTS:  Told from Lionel’s point of view, this story is as much about the workings of a tourettic mind as it is a murder mystery; not to mention a great excuse for Lethem to play with the sounds and structures of language through Lionel’s tics.  Even so, Lionel is a likeable, sympathetic character, far from the street-smart detective he aspires to be, and far from the cartoon caricature he would be at the hands of a lesser author.

Minna’s collection of orphans struck me as very Dickensian and the whole novel was an homage to the gangster and gumshoe genres – yet despite its strong motifs and influences is very much not a typical crime/mystery novel.  Indeed, crime readers may tire of Lethem’s fascination with language and character to which the plot does play second fiddle, slightly.  I enjoyed the telling of the story so much that I really did not mind too much when the ‘revelation’ of what had really been going on finally emerged and was neither incredibly shocking nor fascinating.  There was indeed an explanation for everything, but the journey was definitely more entertaining than the destination.

FOLLOWING ON:  In some ways, this reminded me of Billy Bathgate by E. L. Doctorow, with the main character out of his depth in a world of gangsters and corruption.


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