By: Jonathan Lethem
September 1999, Doubleday Books
A novel about a foursome of Brooklyn orphans who work for a small-time hood running a detective agency. The unusual thing is none of them are really investigators, and they never get any explanation about the jobs they do. When the boss winds up getting shanked he stays true to form and dies without revealing much of anything. He was the closest any of them ever had to a father, so they'll be damned if they let the police handle the investigation. Only problem is they don't work well without supervision and are pretty disorganized. This sets up what could have been a pretty standard detective story.
In this case, however, the plot merely serves as a vehicle for the main charactar. Lionel Essrog is an orphan, dubbed the "Free Human Freakshow" by the boss, and the narrator of the story. What makes him unique is his Tourette's Syndrome, and what makes the book unique is the masterful rendering of the Tourettic condition from the inside out. How accurate the portrayal is I can't say, but it certainly feels real; within the first 20 pages I felt like I had Tourette's. Not only do we get the the array of vocal outbursts, verbal transmutations, and physical compulsions commonly associated with Tourette's, but we get into the character's head to see what's going on just beneath the surface when he's not ticcing, and quite a bit of insight on how the general public deals psychologically with the Tourettic sufferer.
This novel brilliantly avoids stereotypes and gimmicks. You can imagine the temptation to turn everything into a caricature: Tourette's, Brooklyn Hood, Buddhist Monk, Detective Story. But Lethem sidesteps cliché and pulls something fresh from a tired genre. The plot is not particularly clever; fans of the detective novel genre may be disappointed. But what it lacks in seat-edging intensity, Motherless Brooklyn more than makes up for with realism. Every character is, even the ones based on stereotypes, are fully realized as human beings. They aren't brilliant detectives, or hardcore thugs, or even streetwise hoods (even if they want to be), these are just regular joes who had it harder than the rest of us growing up.
Ultimately nothing is wasted here. The plot flows quickly without too many surprises (again, detective novel fans may be left wanting). The digressions are mostly into the head of Lionel Essrog and can't be considered superfluous because they are the most interesting part. When you start the book you see Lionel as his cohorts see him, a human freakshow. By the end you realize that in many ways he's the smartest and most capable of the bunch. In good novels there is some kind of personal development in the main character, but in the case of Motherless Brooklyn, the most striking development was my own growing insight into Lionel Essrog more than his own change. To realize this depth of character where stereotypes loom so large is a testament to Jonathan Lethem's writing talent. Read it today!