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

plan of self-education for an aspiring writer,
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
Amnesia Moon reached equally quirky
fruition in masterworks such as
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!
Visit our companion sites

The New Canon
A guide to outstanding works of
fiction published since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
Celebrating masterworks of science
fiction, fantasy, alternate history
and magical realism

Great Books Guide
A look at contemporary
currents in literature
Motherless Brooklyn
by Jonathan Lethem
judgment long
before the niceties of
price came into
Serving as
understudy to this
anti-Harold Bloom
was all part of
Lethem’s alternative
Reviewed 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 oceanfood
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.

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.   
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 alternatives:
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
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
, as indeed it does on this writer’s entire career.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
Click on image to purchase
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery

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)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

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

Umberto Eco
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

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

Return to Home Page

Contact Info:

Disclosure: This site and its sister sites may
receive promotional copies of works under
review and discussion.
Recommended Sites:

Conceptual Fiction
Great Books Guide
The New Canon
Ted Gioia's homepage
Ted Gioia (on Twitter)

American Fiction Notes
The Art of Reading
The Big Read
Blographia Literaria
Books, Inq.
A Commonplace Blog
Conversational Reading
Crimespree Magazine
Critical Mass
Dana Gioia
The Elegant Variation
In Search of the Classic Mystery
Joseph Peschel
Light Reading
The Literary Saloon
Los Angeles Review of Books
Maud Newton
The Millions
The Misread City
Mystery Fanfare
The Neglected Books Page
Nota Bene Books
Open Letters Monthly
The Reading Experience
Reviews and Responses
Tipping My Fedora