Motherless Brooklyn (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

One of the things that makes a work of fiction into a work of literature is when it transports the reader into a new world, be it into a time or place (or reality) wholly different from our own, or into the head of a character like no other. Such a book is Motherless Brooklyn, which takes us into the head of one Lionel Essrog. Lionel is an orphan with a bad case of Tourette's Syndrome, and he fairly overflows with odd habits and compulsions, his mind continuously revolting against him in lurid outbursts of strange verbiage. He is drawn into playing detective to try to solve the murder of his small-time crook of a boss, but this book is not about plot. It is about language, and a character struggling to control the words and sounds that bubble up from within him. And did I mention that it is hilarious?

— kpr


Saint Vincent's Home for Boys, Brooklyn, early 1970s. For Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. The Human Freakshow, a victim of Tourette's syndrome (an uncontrollable urge to shout out nonsense, touch every surface in reach, rearrange objects), Frank Minna is a savior. A local tough guy and fixer, Minna shows up to take Lionel and three of his fellow orphans on mysterious errands: empty a store of stereos as the owner watches; destroy a small amusement park; go visit old Italian men.

The four grow up to be the Minna Men, a fly-by-night detective agency-cum-limo service, and their days and nights revolve around Frank, the prince of Brooklyn, who glides through life on street smarts, attitude, and secret knowledge. Then one dreadful night, Frank is knifed and thrown in a Dumpster, and Lionel must become a real detective.

As Lionel struggles to find Frank's killer -- and with his Tourette's -- he's forced to delve into the complex, shadowy web of relationships, threats, and favors that make up the Brooklyn world he thought he knew so well. No one -- not Frank, not Frank's bitter wife, Julia, not the other Minna Men -- is what they seem. Not even The Human Freakshow.

All the familiar Lethem touches are here -- crackling dialogue, sly humor, dizzying plot twists -- but they're secondary to wonderfully full, tragic, funny characterizations, and a dazzling evocation of place. Indeed Brooklyn, with its charming folkways and language, its unique style of bad-boy swagger and sentimentality, becomes itself a major character.

"Motherless Brooklyn" is a bravado performance: funny, tense, touching, extravagant. This novel's publication signals the coming-of-age of a major American writer.

Product Details
ISBN: 9780385491839
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication Date: September 1st, 1999
Pages: 320