I must have crossed paths with Jonathan
Lethem when he was working at Moe’s
bookstore in Berkeley.  Certainly I tried to
deal with any employee other than
himself—who scrutinized the books I brought
in for resale, his grimaces passing aesthetic

which included seeing
Star Wars more than
twenty times, hitchhiking through the Western
US, and reading the collected works of
K. Dick (another Berkeleyite, one who made
Moe look like the man in the gray flannel suit).   
But this apprenticeship unlike anything vetted
by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop produced one
of the freshest voices in American fiction.
The promise of quirky early novels such as
Gun, with Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon
reached equally quirky fruition in masterworks
such as
Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of
Solitude.  Along the way, Lethem has chronicled
the music of the Talking Heads and Bob Dylan,
defended plagiarism in a famous essay (which
we all hope is wholly original), and most recently
stepped into the capacious shoes of the late
David Foster Wallace as the Roy E. Disney
Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona
College.  Definitely an
E Ticket required for
that course!
Motherless Brooklyn
by Jonathan Lethem
judgment long before
the niceties of price
came into consideration.
Serving as understudy
to this anti-Harold
Bloom was all part of
Lethem’s alternative
plan of self-education
for an aspiring writer,
Essay by Ted Gioia

At first glance, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless
Brooklyn falls into the category of writing
typically classified as “hard-
boiled.” We get the vigilant
detective in a tough town, lots
of sassy dialogue, an unsolved
murder, and more troublesome
characters than Wingdings font
in Microsoft Word.

But when it’s not hardboiled,
Motherless Brooklyn comes
across as scrambled, in a zany,
typically Lethemesque way, as
well as over easy with a soft

center. Our hero, Lionel Essrog, is all these things.
He is our determined yet gentle private investigator
with Tourette’s syndrome, an affliction that inspires
him to shout out nonsensical and sometimes offensive
comments uncontrollably, as well as engage in a

bewildering array of compulsive actions. Just getting
to the office is an adventure, so how will he ever solve
a crime?  

Yet his mentor and compelling father-figure Frank

Minna has been killed, and it falls on Essrog’s less-
than-capable shoulders to find out who did it. While
Minna was alive, he was a small time hood who
surrounded himself with troubled young men, his
cronies and acolytes.  Essrog comes from the St.
Vincent Home for Boys, a building set on the offramp
to the Brooklyn Bridge, "officially a Nowhere, a place
strenuously ignored in passing through to Somewhere
Else."  His new gang is the closest thing Essrog will

ever have to a real family.  

Related Reviews
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Lionel’s introduction to the investigator’s life first
arrives when Minna set up a car service as a front
for a detective agency. But his crew—the so-called
“Minna’s men”—perpetrate more crimes than they
solve. And who would hire out these bad boys to
solve a real mystery? Yet when the boss gets whacked,
Essrog is faced with a murder to solve, and a trail of

clues that lead to unexpected places—including the
Yorkville Zendo, Maine's only Thai and sushi ocean
food emporium, deceptive storefronts and foreboding
corporate offices.  

Local color is a Lethem trademark, and when he is

in his groove the locals stand out in Technicolor relief.
His characters here are vivid in a modern Dickensian
sense, with that strange combination of parody and
plausibility that you find in the Victorian master, and

they are invariably presented as grounded in their own
distinctive settings. We encounter Rockaforte and
Matricardi, two Italian gentlemen of dubious

professional talents who are so perfectly matched
with their creepy apartment that I am inevitably
reminded of Miss Haversham and her ruined mansion
in Great Expectations.  We run with Tony, Danny and
Gilbert, survivors of the Brooklyn boys home who
possess both the street smarts and crudity of Fagin
and the other urchins of Oliver Twist. And amidst this
squalor, the individual who may possibly turn out to

be the Copperfield-esque hero of his own life (or
maybe not), our narrator and stand-in sleuth Lionel

Essrog is one of the great characters of modern

American fiction. The concept of the detective with
Tourette’s syndrome could be played just for laughs

—and certainly there are plenty of those along the
way.  But Lethem is after something deeper here. In
his follow-up novel The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem
explored the pathos of youngsters whose home life
forces them to search for parenting on the mean streets.  
Motherless Brooklyn is more than a test run for this
painful perspective on alternative child-rearing
techniques;  rather it is a fully realized depiction of the
child, that great blank Rousseauian sheet of potential
character, as it fills in its internal spaces with the
psychological graffiti and abandoned urban junk it
encounters in the chance settings an unkind destiny

has provided.  This type of coming-of-age story is
bound to be both profoundly sad and dazzlingly
unexpected in its twists and turns.  In Essrog’s
eccentricities, Lethem realizes both the inherent

absurdity and poignancy of his protagonist’s life and
assumed role as protector to others.  

Minna assigns Lionel Essrog the less-than-kind

nickname "Freakshow." His Tourette’s leads him
into irresistible word association games. When he
hears his own name, his mind begins forming the
Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic
Pissclam.  Often these nonsense syllable strings
are merely thought or muttered sotto voce, but
in other instances they are exclaimed vehemently
for all to hear—invariably, during the course of
this novel, at the worst possible moments. When
you are trying to uncover clues in the midst of a
group zen meditation session, you most assuredly
should not shout out: "Zengeance. Ziggedy
zendoodah. Pierogi Monster Zen master zealous
neighbor. Zazen zaftig Zsa-Zsa go-bare." This only
gets Lionel walloped with the keisaku (that’s the
nasty zen paddle for those of you haven’t had the
mind-expanding privilege).  

Along the way, Lethem inserts a romantic sub-plot,

a global conspiracy, knock-em and sock-em fight
scenes, and pretty much everything else necessary
to propel this film-noir-ish novel to its satisfying
conclusion. In retrospect,
Motherless Brooklyn stands
out as the turning point in Lethem’s career, the
moment when this author rose above the genre
conventions of his early work and established his
high-lit credentials.  But the marvel is not that he
was able to make the leap, but rather that he brought
all the genre baggage with him on the trip. This
unusual lineage puts a personal stamp on Motherless
, as indeed it does on this writer’s entire

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and pop culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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Further Clues:

Jonathan Lethem Home Page

Interview with Jonathan Lethem by Lorin Stein
from The Paris Review

Interview with Jonathan Lethem by Ronnie Scott

"The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" by
Jonathan Lethem from Harper's
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

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London Fields

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Thomas Bernhard
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Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

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Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

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