Riding the V Train to Zengeance

This is my review of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem.

In this Chandler-inspired tale, small-time crook Frank Minna selects a group of teenage orphans, "Motherless Brooklyn" to be his "men". When he is murdered some years later, one of these, Lionel Essrog, takes it upon himself to find the killer of the man who has become a father figure, and who empathised with his little understood Tourette's Syndrome which he nicknamed "Terminal Tugboating" – not knowing when some "verbal gambit was right at its limit" – even giving Lionel a book on Tourette's to help him to manage his condition.

What sets this book apart is the author's ability to enter into the mind of a person with Tourette's, and sustain this through more than three hundred pages of narration. I have no idea how accurate this is, but we come to accept Lionel's need to shout and play aloud with words continually to relieve his inner tension, his obsessive need to count things, to have everything in fives if that is his number of the moment, to touch people even if strangers, all of which makes him appear crazy, odd, an object of disgust, often insulted and underestimated even by those who should know him well, although we can see the tragedy of the intelligence and sensitivity trapped beneath all this.

This book is likely to divide opinion sharply. After I had adapted to Lionel's conversations peppered with gibberish wordplay – often with a rational thread to it – I found the writing original and often very funny with its wry New York humour, at times moving, insightful and poetical, creating a vivid picture of the character of Brooklyn and its residents – Italian makers of mouth-watering sandwiches; sinister old mobsters called Matricardi and Rockaforte, which Lionel transforms into wordplay as "Bricco and Stuckface"; beat cops who "dislodge clumps of teenagers" with a terse "Tell your story walking!" Yet at times, the prose seems too contrived, and Lionel unbearably irritating with his endless references to "ticcing" (having a nervous tic), although it is no doubt part of the author's intention to create understanding and sympathy for an apparently unappealing character.

About two-thirds in, I began to have concerns about the plot. Tension gives way to farce in scenes such as when Lionel is bundled into a car, only to note that his kidnappers all wear dark glasses with the price tags still attached, giving, him, of course, a desperate desire to touch them. I do not find Frank's brother Gerard a believable character. The arrival at the final denouement seems to me rather clunky and underwhelming, as if all the author's efforts have gone into writing brilliant and unusual prose, rather than plotting a satisfying detective thriller. After having worked so hard to keep up with Lionel's flights of verbal fancy, it is disappointing to have the plot explained with such pedestrian clarity at the end.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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