Motherless BrooklynMotherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review was written a couple of years before the recently well-made movie by Edward Norton came out.

I love how browsing through Amazon’s online store sometimes brings to notice some absolute gems from the recent past which I would surely have missed otherwise. This is one of those, a wildly inventive take on a detective with Tourette’s syndrome and the murky paths he has to traverse to solve a crime which personally affects him. Genre writing is usually not my cup of beverage, but this is a literarily worthy thriller if there ever was one.

Lionel Essrog, orphan, small time detective cum limo service driver cum shady mobster helper has unbearable tics which force him to explode his language into various innovative bursts in between perfectly normal sounding conversations, to the surprise and discomfort of unsuspecting listeners. Apart from this, he also needs to count things in certain multiples or straighten out that irritatingly obvious collar of the other person. Tourette’s is not something I know much about, but empathy with people having conditions we can’t even imagine is one of the primary distinguishing factors of literature. Plus, probably having a mild OCD at times does make me more appreciative of the issues.

Frank Minna, mentor and probably small time mobster in Brooklyn takes Lionel and his three friends under his wing to perform certain favors, some a little shady, for him and in return introduce them to adulthood and the only world they know beyond the doors of the home they are raised in. He treats Lionel with the necessary gruff affection, both considering him his human freakshow while trying to help him understand his condition. He becomes a sort of shepherd for ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ his own term for the orphans. However, when things go horribly wrong for Frank in one of his suitably mysterious operations, Lionel and the rest of the Minna Men must navigate the murky world of their own insecurities and clashes as well as with the world Frank Minna dealt in to try and get to the bottom of the mystery. As Lionel makes his way into the underbelly of his city which he has never left in his life, he comes across a deepening sense of dread and threads of connections he could never have imagined. All the while, this neo noir style thriller progresses through Lionel’s attempts to navigate it all while trying to keeping his condition under at least a semblance of social acceptability.

This was a lovely book to end my reading year on. Lionel Essrog is such a unique character compared to any I’ve read, and he is presented with such humanity and tasteful humor that you can’t help rooting for this social misfit. The author’s portrayal of Lionel also gives hope that everyone, despite their seeming social awkwardness, can hope to live life on their terms and yet find their own sense and place of belonging.

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