By Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday. 311 pp. $23.95
Reviewed by Adam Mazmanian
As with a high-concept Hollywood blockbuster, the premise of Motherless Brooklyn is easily contorted into an alluring, one-sentence pitch: A private eye with Tourette's Syndrome solves the murder of his mentor.
An infinite potential for comedy is contained within this improbable plotline. The private eye, as traditionally conceived, is a sharpie, a wisecracking, hard-drinking, aloof tough guy. Tourette's Syndrome is a neurological disorder expressed in physical and verbal tics ranging from facial twitches to uncontrollable flashes of profanity. The man in the trenchcoat, a cigarette dangling coolly from his lower lip, loses his credibility when he risks lurching into a fit of coprolalia at the drop of a well-blocked fedora.
But Lionel Essrog, both detective and narrator, is not a risible character, even though he is often called "freakshow" and "crazyman." He's an orphan, raised in a Brooklyn orphanage, and educated by Frank Minna, a mysterious, mobbed-up South Brooklyn operator who runs the Minna Detective Agency (and, it seems to young Essrog, all of Court Street in Brooklyn). Minna, who took Essrog as an apprentice when he was 13, plays father, hero and role model to him and three fellow orphans -- Tony, a blustering Mafia wannabe; Danny, a lithesome, imperturbable hoopster; and Gilbert, who is doughy and unreflective.
The novel opens with a stakeout. Essrog and Gilbert are trailing Minna to a meeting at a Buddhist temple on Manhattan's East Side. Despite their attentive surveillance, Minna is abducted and killed. The novel arcs around Essrog (at age 33, in many ways still a child, the receptacle of a single influence) and his compulsive search for the killer. But the real mystery, the deeper story, is even riskier, more interior and deceptively ambitious. Essrog's ticcing carves a path between the subconscious and the surface of things, suggesting myriad connections and conspiracies ("wheels within wheels" is one of Frank Minna's refrains) between the brain and the observable world too numerous to document, suggesting a universe of experience unavailable to the "normal" brain.
Simultaneously, Essrog's ticcing charts sound and meaning, unearthing a hidden language of false cognates, rhyming slang, spoonerisms and puns -- a poetry of cerebral overload. Offered Thai soup in a restaurant he stammers: "Tie-chicken-to-what? Tinker to Evers to Chicken." When Minna's abductors threaten to escape, his mind screams, "Follow that car! Hollywood star! When you wish upon a cigar!" Reflecting on both the case and his position on a mental map of New England, he exclaims "invest-in-a-gun, connect-a-cop, inventachusetts. . ."
Jonathan Lethem, author of four previous, well-received novels, is known for clever genre-bending, the sort generally categorized under the imprecise catchall "postmodernism." ("Most ponderous!") Lethem's new book, however, is so true to the conventions of detective fiction that it's startling whenever Essrog betrays his awareness of them. When a suspect in the novel's central crime is murdered offstage, eliminating him from the controversy, Essrog muses, "Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence?" Pistol-whipped into unconsciousness, Essrog quotes Philip Marlowe on the subject of oblivion. He even tics on The Maltese Falcon: "The quieter the monk, the gaudier the patter." This self-consciousness is the novel's weakest aspect, drawing attention to the formulaic plot pieces, from the opening murder to the obligatory warning ("Get off the case!"), to a numbingly expository final confrontation that would leave Hercule Poirot winded: "You know more than me. . ."; "Let me work out the next part. . ."; "When did you figure out the truth?"
The detective genre, I think, is singularly ill-suited to this sort of arch meta-narrative because the literary impulse behind a good detective story is already ironic, detached, playful and self-conscious to the point of self-parody. Go back to your Chandler, your Marlowe, your Thompson. The cartoonishly iron-jawed, rye-besotted, fast-talking exteriors of their detectives belie their compulsion for the truth, mask a craving for disclosure. Essrog is not so different except that his Tourette's is the crack in the mask or, rather, an infinity of pinpricks.
This literary-historical self-consciousness is a minor intrusion. I will also fault Lethem for his cartoonish portrayal of two aging, high-level Italian gangsters who figure prominently. They speak in stilted, portentous tones that recall champion wrestler Lenny Montana's turn as the hypothyroidal hitman Luca Brasi in "The Godfather." It's a little silly, and an inauthentic turn in a novel that takes pains to describe real and actual Brooklyn buildings and businesses. In Essrog, however, Lethem has fashioned a lovably strange man-child and filled his cross-wired mind with a brilliant, crashing, self-referential interior monologue that is at once laugh-out-loud funny, tender and in the honest service of a terrific story. It would be quite unlike Lethem to saddle up Essrog for another go-round, but I can't help thinking, as sentimental and unfashionable as it sounds, what a shame.
Adam Mazmanian is a writer living in Brooklyn.