Only Jonathan Lethem could turn an homage to the classic noir style into a wildly inventive exploration of language, loyalty, and the principles of Zen Buddhism. Lethem’s fascination with noir played a major role in his debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music. In Motherless Brooklyn, the reader is treated to a gritty interpretation of noir filtered through an unforgettable narrator—Lionel Essrog. As always, Lethem’s writing is superb, and the construction of Lionel’s narrative voice is a rare accomplishment.
Lionel Essrog is an inexperienced detective who has a complicated relationship with language. Lionel is always looking for an antidote – some sensation or substance that will temporarily quell the feral language percolating in his brain. White Castle hamburgers can have therapeutic properties, and fear will work in a pinch. But Lionel’s mind always reverts back to an intricate arrangement of associative tics, repetition, and wordplay.
As a young orphan, Lionel hid out in the library at St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, trying to exorcise himself of his linguistic demons. By immersing himself in the words of others, Lionel hoped to find his own voice or discover a gateway that would make language truly accessible for him. That quest was unfulfilled until Lionel met Frank Minna, the charismatic Lord of Court Street.
As a low level mobster, Minna is powerful enough to pluck Tony, Gilbert, Danny, and Lionel out of St. Vincent’s to do his light work. Despite Lionel’s reputation as a “freakshow,” he is incorporated into the new group of recruits. For all the boys, Minna becomes a surrogate father figure, teaching them the ways of the world. The world of Court Street is dominated by thugs, mysterious clients, and shady deals, but Lionel and his companions learn to follow orders. Eventually, the boys become Minna Men: “Minna Men wear suits. Minna Men drive cars. Minna Men stand behind Minna, hands in their pockets, looking menacing…Minna Men try to be like Minna… .”
When the Minna Men aren’t doing their boss’s bidding, they masquerade as a detective agency to conceal their true function. The system runs smoothly until Court Street’s fragile ecosystem is disrupted by Minna’s suspicious death. After a secretive meeting at a Zendo (a gathering place for Zen practitioners) goes awry, Lionel is forced to process the news that his boss is gone for good.
While the other Minna Men vie to become the new leader, Lionel is determined to find out what really happened to Frank Minna. Lionel was devoted to Minna because he was the first person to identify the mysterious cause of Lionel’s uncontrollable and disturbing mannerisms as Tourette’s. Lionel was understandably relieved to discover that he isn’t crazy. Plus, the fact that Minna always found amusement in Lionel’s obsessive wordplay gave Lionel access to what he spent long hours in the library searching for: sufficient confidence to use his voice, unpredictable though it may be.
But how does one sort through clues and follow leads when every interaction is interrupted by unsettling vocalizations and blurted words and phrases? Throughout Motherless Brooklyn, Tourette’s actually turns out to be Lionel’s secret weapon. To others, it might make him seem crazy or unhinged. In reality, it represents the way he processes information and internalizes what is going on around him. While everyone assumes he’s just a “human freakshow,” Lionel Essrog is being a real detective for once. Even though he struggles with basic conversation, he successfully navigates the labyrinthine clues that expose the circumstances of Frank Minna’s demise.
I think it’s important to note that Lionel’s unique narrative perspective is not gimmicky or cliché. On an aesthetic level, it creates a captivating parallel between the convoluted nexus of motives, betrayals, and potential clues at the heart of the investigation and Lionel’s complex internal landscape. Tourette’s actually becomes a metaphor for detective work itself: “Assertions are common to me, and they’re common to detectives. And in detective stories things are always always, the detective casting his exhausted, caustic gaze over the corrupted permanence of everything and thrilling you with his sweetly savage generalizations. This or that runs deep or true to form, is invariable, exemplary. Oh sure. Seen it before, will see it again. Trust me on this one. Assertions and generalizations are, of course, a version of Tourette’s. A way of touching the world, handling it, covering it with confirming language.”
In Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem engages in some very creative linguistic experimentation and playfully deconstructs the noir genre.