Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem
4.3 46

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Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A compelling and complusively readable riff on the classic detective novel from America's most inventive novelist. 

Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, Lionel Essrog is an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways. Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head. Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original, captivating homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

A New York Times Notable Book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307789129
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/20/2011
Series: Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 70,359
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including the best sellers The Fortress of Solitude, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice for one of the best books of 2003, and Mother Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named novel of the year by Esquire, McSweeney's, Tin House, The New York TImes, the Paris Review, and a variety of other periodicals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.


New York, New York

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


Left Bennington College after two years

Read an Excerpt

Walks Into

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I'd have to be Mumbles.) In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They're an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only--here's the rub--when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark.

"Eat me!" I scream.

* * *

"Maufishful," said Gilbert Coney in response to my outburst, not even turning his head. I could barely make out the words--"My mouth is full"--both truthful and a joke, lame. Accustomed to my verbal ticcing, he didn't usually bother to comment. Now he nudged the bag of White Castles in my direction on the car seat, crinkling the paper. "Stuffinyahole."

Coney didn't rate any special consideration from me. "Eatmeeatmeeatme," I shrieked again, letting off more of the pressure in my head. Then I was able to concentrate. I helped myself to one of the tiny burgers. Unwrapping it, I lifted the top of the bun to examine the grid of holes in the patty, the slime of glistening cubed onions. This was another compulsion. I always had to look inside a White Castle, to appreciate the contrast of machine-tooled burger and nubbin of fried goo. kaos and control. Then I did more or less as Gilbert had suggested--pushed it into my mouth whole. The ancient slogan Buy 'em by the sack humming deep in my head, jaw working to grind the slider into swallowable chunks, I turned back to stare out the window at the house.

Food really mellows me out.

We were putting a stakeout on 109 East Eighty-fourth Street, a lone town house pinned between giant doorman apartment buildings, in and out of the foyers of which bicycle deliverymen with bags of hot Chinese flitted like tired moths in the fading November light. It was dinner hour in Yorktown. Gilbert Coney and I had done our part to join the feast, detouring up into Spanish Harlem for the burgers. There's only one White Castle left in Manhattan, on East 103rd. It's not as good as some of the suburban outlets. You can't watch them prepare your order anymore, and to tell the truth I've begun to wonder if they're microwaving the buns instead of steaming them. Alas. Taking our boodle of thusly compromised sliders and fries back downtown, we double-parked in front of the target address until a spot opened up. It only took a couple of minutes, though by that time the doormen on either side had made us--made us as out-of-place and nosy anyway. We were driving the Lincoln, which didn't have the "T"-series license plates or stickers or anything else to identify it as a Car Service vehicle. And we were large men, me and Gilbert. They probably thought we were cops. It didn't matter. We chowed and watched.

Not that we knew what we were doing there. Minna had sent us without saying why, which was usual enough, even if the address wasn't. Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed game board of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers--like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)--to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East Side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland--or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard.

"What's that sign?" said Coney. He pointed with his glistening chin at the town house doorway. I looked.

" 'Yorkville Zendo,' " I read off the bronze plaque on the door, and my fevered brain processed the words and settled with interest on the odd one. "Eat me Zendo!" I muttered through clenched teeth.

Gilbert took it, rightly, as my way of puzzling over the unfamiliarity. "Yeah, what's that Zendo? What's that?"

"Maybe like Zen," I said.

"I don't know from that."

"Zen like Buddhism," I said. "Zen master, you know."

"Zen master?"

"You know, like kung-fu master."

"Hrrph," said Coney.

And so after this brief turn at investigation we settled back into our complacent chewing. Of course after any talk my brain was busy with at least some low-level version of echolalia salad: Don't know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me! But it didn't require voicing, not now, not with White Castles to unscrew, inspect and devour. I was on my third. I fit it into my mouth, then glanced up at the doorway of One-oh-nine, jerking my head as if the building had been sneaking up on me. Coney and the other Minna Agency operatives loved doing stakeouts with me, since my compulsiveness forced me to eyeball the site or mark in question every thirty seconds or so, thereby saving them the trouble of swiveling their necks. A similar logic explained my popularity at wiretap parties--give me a key list of trigger words to listen for in a conversation and I'd think about nothing else, nearly jumping out of my clothes at hearing the slightest hint of one, while the same task invariably drew anyone else toward blissful sleep.

While I chewed on number three and monitored the uneventful Yorkville Zendo entrance my hands busily frisked the paper sack of Castles, counting to be sure I had three remaining. We'd purchased a bag of twelve, and not only did Coney know I had to have my six, he also knew he was pleasing me, tickling my Touretter's obsessive-compulsive instincts, by matching my number with his own. Gilbert Coney was a big lug with a heart of gold, I guess. Or maybe he was just trainable. My tics and obsessions kept the other Minna Men amused, but also wore them out, made them weirdly compliant and complicit.

A woman turned from the sidewalk onto the stoop of the town house and went up to the door. Short dark hair, squarish glasses, that was all I saw before her back was to us. She wore a pea coat. Sworls of black hair at her neck, under the boyish haircut. Twenty-five maybe, or maybe eighteen.

"She's going in," said Coney.

"Look, she's got a key," I said.

"What's Frank want us to do?"

"Just watch. Take a note. What time is it?"

Coney crumpled another Castle wrapper and pointed at the glove compartment. "You take a note. It's six forty-five."

I popped the compartment--the click-release of the plastic latch was a delicious hollow sound, which I knew I'd want to repeat, at least approximately--and found the small notebook inside. GIRL, I wrote, then crossed it out. WOMAN, HAIR, GLASSES, KEY. 6:45. The notes were to myself, since I only had to be able to report verbally to Minna. If that. For all we knew, he might want us out here to scare someone, or to wait for some delivery. I left the notebook beside the Castles on the seat between us and slapped the compartment door shut again, then delivered six redundant slaps to the same spot to ventilate my brain's pressure by reproducing the hollow thump I'd liked. Six was a lucky number tonight, six burgers, six forty-five. So six slaps.

* * *

For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain--same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back.

Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer.

Reading Group Guide

1. For readers who come to Motherless Brooklyn with little knowledge of Brooklyn, what devices, beyond straightforward descriptions, does Lethem use to capture its distinctive atmosphere?

2. Lionel's wordplay includes variations on his own name—Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclaim, for example. How does this particular quirk serve to establish Lionel's sense of himself and his place in the world? Is there an internal logic about the variations or are they simply haphazard?

3. The Minna Men are all orphans, first introduced as teenagers. Discuss how each of them carves out an identity for himself and why this is important to them. How do the initial descriptions Lionel provides of Tony [p. 39], Gil [p. 40], and Danny [p. 42-43] foreshadow the relationships among the four as adults? Do their characters change in the course of the novel?

4. Does Minna see himself as more than a boss to the young men? Does he make a conscious effort to turn the group into a family or does the family feeling develop from the needs of the young men themselves? What evidence, if any, is there that Minna's interest in them is emotional as well as practical? In what ways does Minna's relationship with his own mother and older brother influence the way he treats the Minna Men?

5. Why does Lionel say "it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak" [p.37]? What parts do Tony, Gil, and Danny play in helping Lionel accept his Tourette's Syndrome? How do their individual ways of dealing with Lionel differ? Which man's support is the most significant to Lionel both as a teenager and as anadult?

6. In describing Gil's explanation of Minna's kidnapping and murder, Lionel says "English might have been his fourth or fifth language from the sound of it" [p. 94]. Why does Lethem include this observation and other examples of mangled language throughout the book? How do they put Lionel's own "language difficulties" in perspective?

7. In addition to Lionel's wonderful, often poetic riffs, what other specific language patterns does Lethem employ to bring the various characters to life? For example, how do Lionel's conversation with the homicide detective [pp. 109-111], his initial encounter with Kimmery [p. 135] and his interview with Matricardi and Rockaforte [pp. 176-177] create impressions of these particular people that are independent of Lionel's own perceptions?

8. What role does Julia play in the novel? In what ways is she the stereotypical "dame" of other hard-boiled detective novels and films and how is she different? Do you think Julia is right when she says "No woman would ever want you, Lionel. . . . That's not really true. They might want you. . . . But they'll never be fair to you" [p. 297]?

9. Is Kimmery also a stock figure in this tradition? How does Kimmery's reaction to Lionel's Tourettic behavior differ from the reactions of the other characters? Does the brief, romantic interlude between Lionel and Kimmery advance the plot and if so, in what ways? How does it affect your understanding of Lionel? Is Kimmery "fair" to Lionel?

10. The Zen Buddhist communities in New York and Maine are not at all what they seem. Are the characters who participate in the Buddhist Zendo—Lionel's brother, Gerald, Julia, and Kimmery—influenced by Buddhist teachings? Do the principles of Zen Buddhism (either as expressed in the book by Kimmery or from your knowledge) illuminate some of the themes Lethem explores?

11. Does Lionel in fact become a "real detective"? Do his techniques fit your definition of detective work? Kimmery, for example, is skeptical about both his intentions and his working style [p. 255]. Do you think her evaluation is accurate? In other detective books you may have read, are the heroes completely removed from the personal aspects of the cases they investigate? Is the solution to Minna's murder fully satisfying in light of the evidence presented in the rest of the book?

12. At several points in the book, Lethem makes direct reference to the genres that inform Motherless Brooklyn—both the classic detective novel and "wiseguy" novels and movies. For example, Minna teases Gil for saying "piece, " rather than "gun" [p. 8]; and Lionel asks "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 on to the page and burden you with his actual existence?" [p. 119]. In another passage, Lionel compares himself to the standard set in detective literature: "So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange, swirling darknesses . . . and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition" [p. 205]. Why does Lethem include these references? Are they simply there for "comic relief" or do they serve another purpose?

13. By using Lionel as narrator, Lethem is following a long tradition in detective fiction. In what ways would the impact on the reader be different if a third-person voice told the story? Why do you think he chose to use a narrator with Tourette's Syndrome? Is this purely a literary device, giving him the opportunity to play with language as an author? Do the classic detective heroes—for example, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe—have quirks comparable to Lionel's?

14. Does the title of the book refer only to the four orphans who make up the Minna Men? In what ways is Brooklyn itself "motherless"?

15. The Voice Literary Supplement wrote "Lethem loves to cross-wire popular genres and watch the sparks fly." In addition to the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, what other genre does Lethem draw on in Motherless Brooklyn?

Customer Reviews

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Motherless Brooklyn 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Murdock More than 1 year ago
This book is one of my all-time favorites. Jonathan Lethem really takes you in with this novel about a man with tourette's trying to track down his mentor's killer.
Frenections More than 1 year ago
The kind of book people kept on asking me "is that book that funny?" Its one of the funniest books with a great story line, awesome great characters, I have read in a long time long long time. Hilarious, suspenseful and at times sad. Great book. I already bought this as a gift three items and all of them loved it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Johnathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn is easily one of the best novels of detective fiction ever written. All of the characters are incredible, especially Lionel. Highly recommended for those who like both detective fiction and fiction. This is fiction at its best, folks.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book! I enjoyed reading it so much, I missed my stop on lightrail not once, but THREE times in one week because I was so engrossed in the story. Lionel Essrog is one of the most amusing and endearing characters I've met in a book in a long time. READ THIS BOOK!
RealDeal More than 1 year ago
"Motherless Brooklyn" is written in a style reminiscent of old-fashioned hard-boiled crime novels with fast-paced action and witty dialogue. The protagonist, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome and also compulsively needs to count and touch things. Lionel, an orphan since birth, was taken under the wing of a local mafia-man, Frank Minna, who is murdered. There is a manhunt, tics, more tics, involvement with the Mafia and some wild twists and turns. Although the plot line of the mystery itself is average, the writing is so unique and excellent that I think it overcomes the plot deficiencies toward the end of the novel. There is a lot of internal dialogue throughout the novel and Lethem uses language in incredibly inventive ways to convey what is going on in Lionel's head immediately preceding a Tourette's tic. Motherless Brooklyn is probably best described as a cross between a literary novel and detective novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed every minute I spent reading this novel. It's clever, funny, original, and above all, it has a big, big heart. Lethem presents his characters with such compassion and wit, I couldn't put it down. Lionel's Tourettic outbursts make this novel especially memorable. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent and very different story about Bklyn with a very colorful group of characters. A funny and gritty story I have read many times. I truly hope it becomes a movie.
benfrisch More than 1 year ago
Our book group read this novel and we had a great discussion. The book is compelling and you want to read more. At the same time, it is fun to stop and enjoy the language.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While slightly disappointed in the story development, I enjoyed the freshness of the vocabulary. The author loves words and knows how to string them together into a linguistic feast.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book up until the last few pages. It could, and maybe should, have been twice the length. The main character is unwittingly humorous, intelligent, naive, kind, and criminal. Motherless Brooklyn is one of the most inventive approaches to a mystery in years, even if the ending is flat and unsatisfying.
Guest More than 1 year ago
...unless you can tolerate people staring at you for laughing uproariously. I about died laughing!!! I almost couldn't read it in bed for fear of keeping my husband awake with my giggles! Odd uses of language are extremely humorous to me, and Lionel Essrog's gramatically incorrect outburts are hilarious (the one drawback is that he does have a valid handicap and I felt terrible about finding Tourette's Syndrome so funny, but it's obviously the author's intent.) Great for a laugh and a fairly interesting mystery plot.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well written, thoughtful, intuitive and funny. A favorite book of myself and many of my friends. The best book I have read in a long time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Motherless Brooklyn¿ by Jonathan Lethem is about four orphans who are picked up by Frank Minna in their adolescent years. The four boys live at the St. Vincent¿s Home for Boys in Brooklyn, New York. One of the boys, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette¿s syndrome. He has these impulses that cause him to tic and shout out profanities at any given time. When the four boys first meet Frank Minna, they start to work for him at his moving agency. He pays them twenty dollars and returns them to St. Vincent¿s when he is done with them. One day, Minna goes up state and doesn¿t come back for two years. When he does come back, the moving agency is now a detective agency pretending to be a limousine service. The boys are now men and working together as detectives. Frank gets fatally stabbed and when this happens, the four men go through a huge fiasco trying to figure out who murdered him. It is a fact of life that if a person is different, other people will ignore and not tolerate that person; in ¿Motherless Brooklyn,¿ by Jonathan Lethem, a boy grows up being known as a freak and ignored by most people. Lethem uses characterization to develop this theme. Lionel Essrog is the boy that grew up being a freak because of his Tourette¿s. Lethem uses Lionel himself, Frank Minna, other boys from St. Vincent¿s, and other people that don¿t know him to reveal the theme. One particular thought from Lionel makes this theme very clear, ¿Tourette¿s teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see the reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive¿it teaches you this because you¿re the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way¿ (43). Frank is always calling him a freakshow and when he constantly bursts out, he will tell him to cut it out and shut up. The other boys at St. Vincent¿s threaten to beat him up because he tries to touch them and kiss them, but he can¿t help it. They lower his self-esteem and make him feel like a nobody. He spends most of his days in St. Vincent¿s library reading because he can¿t do anything with the other boys without being labeled as different. Lethem succeeds in stating and proving his theme that it is the sad truth to the world that people have grown up in and are still living in today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Motherless Brooklyn was the best and final read of 2001 for me. Lethem has a pretty amazing imagination to create a plot involving two-bit thugs, Zen, a Polish giant, orphans, and Tourettes, set it beautiful ungentrified Brooklyn. The book's language was interesting, well-crafted, and so funny I laughed out loud on the subway. To me, Essrog ranks up there as one of the best central characters in fiction. I loved this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the most excellent books I have ever read. For something fresh and interesting in your library, be sure and add this book. I fell in LOVE with Lionel and also maybe with Jonathan Lethem for writing this book. It makes me want to go out and IMMEDIATELY read all his other works. I gave this one to a lot of friends. I hope everyone enjoys it as much as me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a most amazing book, so superbly written that only one paragraph in the entire book could be improved! Lethem writes the most perfect book as Annie Dillard did, when at 26, she wrote, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.The similarity is not in the topic but in its excellence and in sensing writers at their utmost best. I laughed, pondered life's difficult moments, enjoyed the well- crafted story, and was overwhelmed. It is rare to find such great books but this is surely one of them. In short, I bought six copies and gave them to friends and colleagues. It is that superb!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Motherless Brooklyn is the best book I have read in the past 20 years! It's Original, funny and very touching (and human) all at the same time. My only critizism though would be that it is needlessly long in parts (especially Chapt 2). Overall: A great book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being a physician and one intimately acquainted with the underside of Brooklyn, I can only nod, cry, and freak out with the 'human freak show'. He has the darkness and the seaminess down pat, and the humanity poking it's head up wanting to scream but only sqeaking momentarily. If you want to be amused and bewildered at the same time, read this book, then recommend it to your friends.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Motherless Brooklyn' is amazingly original, heartbreaking, and hilarious. I was left wondering if Jonathan Lethem has Tourette's syndrome himself; his insight into the disease is candid and real.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Motherless Brooklyn is one of the rare books that made me laugh and cry and ponder. The language is original and captivating, the underlying emotions profound, multi-layered and haunting. The depiction of New York's ethnic and cultural diversity is so vivid and comically real, without being insensitive to any particular groups. Highly enjoyable and truly unforgettable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Motherless Brooklyn' is a joy to read....very funny in parts.....I would hope the author, Jonathan Lethem would write another book with the charactor Mr. Essrog in it....excellent book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lethem really grabs the attention of the reader and without pause sinks us right deep into the story. From the beginning to end and throughout the development of characters and plot we are captivated by the story and the narrative itself. Sarcastic and humorous at times. Very enjoyable.
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