Belonging, without question, within the lineage of the hardboiled, Jonathan Lethem‘s moving Motherless Brooklyn is an example of the way hardboiled tropes can be tweaked to make sense in a contemporary context. Not a revisionist book per se, Motherless Brooklyn stays true to its generic inspirations while also exploring new modes.
Published in 1999, reviews at The New York Times and Salon, described Motherless Brooklyn as “better than the average hip post modern novel” and working under “the guise of a detective novel” to achieve loftier goals, respectively. The problem I have with these analyses is that they dismiss how cleanly the novel stays within hardboiled genre conventions. Lethem clearly, to me at least, set out to write a detective novel first, and the subtext and twists on genre followed after.
The story is entirely from the main character’s point-of-view, Lionel Essrog, an orphan who grew up with a close group of three other Brooklyn castoffs, Tony, Danny and Gilbert; later to be taken under the mentoring of a shady local businessman Frank Minna. As “Minna’s Men” the four eventually become a detective agency/limo service, with some sketchy additional responsibilities doled out by Frank with little context. Despite some occasional rough treatment at all of their hands, Lionel loves Frank like a father and the other Minna Men as brothers. A subtext in Motherless Brooklyn about the way we, sometimes desperately, create ersatz families out of friends is essentially text.
The primary plot driver of the novel is an investigation Lionel undertakes—of his own volition with no support and rife with obstacles—of the mysterious fate of Frank Minna himself. This investigation eventually destabilizes and recontextualizes Lionel’s understanding of almost all of the people and situations he has lived with most of his adult life.
What sets the novel apart from other hardboiled detective fiction is the unique interior mental landscape of Lionel Essrog. Lionel has struggled all his life with Tourette’s syndrome, in a social environment that is by turns dismissively cold or actively hostile to the different and unexpected. But while Lionel’s syndrome is the source of a wide range of injuries to his self-esteem and a daily challenge, it’s also shown to be part of what makes him a natural detective. Lethem turns Lionel’s Tourette’s into a kind of secret—admittedly hard to control and potentially damaging—super-power, like an X-Men-style mutation. Given Lethem’s well documented love of comics, this approach to explaining Tourette’s to the lay person is organic and strangely relate-able. I had never understood Tourette’s as a collection of discreet compulsive behaviours until I spent time in Lionel Essrog’s mental landscape.
Lethem tries to capture what it must be like to compulsively turn an idea, word or image over-and-over in your head until it has to explode out of you in a outburst—like venting steam to release pressure—the outward expression of rapid and compulsive thought processes. I have no idea how accurate Motherless Brooklyn is to the interior life of a Tourette’s sufferer, but to an outsider like me there seemed to be an emotional honesty and genuine empathy to the depiction. Lethem also makes a compelling argument that the compulsions at the heart of Lionel’s syndrome make him the only one in the book capable of following through on the truth behind the fate of Frank Minna.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to see Motherless Brooklyn as the precursor (inspiration?) to so many television shows about brilliant characters with diagnosable mental problems, which seem to help make them better at their jobs, such as Monk, House and even the recent Sherlock.
While engaging and heartfelt throughout, Motherless Brooklyn is not without some minor issues. In particular, a love interest for Lionel begins as an intriguing personality sketch but quickly thins out into inscrutability. This was probably a deliberate choice on Lethem’s part as it either helps show the challenges someone with Tourette’s must face in cultivating romantic relationships, or the challenges Lionel faces in specific because he basically inhabits, and is largely comfortable in, a world of thugs and gangsters. Either way though, the net effect is to turn an initially promising character into stock. This is a little disappointing in that the lack of positive female influences—particularity mother figures—in all the Minna Men’s lives (implicit even in the title of the book) is an interesting bit of subtext that could have been explored further. Lethem pokes at the idea with his depictions of Frank’s mother and wife, but the concept feels slightly under-served.
Flaws aside, Motherless Brooklyn is a refreshingly entertaining read: a tense, driving, hardboiled detective story with heartfelt and truly moving pathos and a unique point-of-view—it’s also full of lovingly rendered Brooklyn details that ground the proceedings.
Motherless Brooklyn helps to reinforce that hardboiled writing can have a place in contemporary fiction, and not just as a curio of the past. Motherless Brooklyn feels as fresh and interesting today as when it was written, and I suspect it will age very well.