Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem’s fifth novel, begins with two detectives, Lionel Essrog and Gilbert Coney, on a stakeout, keeping watch over a Zen meditation center in Manhattan. (Essrog is not the typical fictional detective; he suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a psychological condition causing a variety of compulsive behaviors.) Although Essrog and Coney are staking out the Zen center for their boss, Frank Minna, he, typically, has not told them what they are supposed to be watching for or why. Minna’s unexpected appearance at the Zen center leads to his abduction and a car chase, albeit an atypical car chase through stop-and-start, bumper-to-bumper traffic, the most thrilling moment occurring when the car Essrog and Coney are pursuing eludes them at a toll gate because the murderous driver carries a frequent-commuter pass. Essrog and Coney finally catch up with Minna, but he is already dying of multiple stab wounds and will not tell them why he was killed or by whom.
Minna’s death leads Essrog to trace the history of Minna and his “Minna Men”— four orphaned, outcast boys taken under Minna’s wing while still residents of St. Vincent’s Home for Boys in Brooklyn. Initially Minna hired Essrog, Coney, Tony Vermonte, and Danny Fantl to perform various tasks for what he insisted was a moving company, but eventually became a father figure to them; the four motherless boys longed to be like Minna, who ruled certain streets of Brooklyn through a series of unspoken agreements and shady connections. He taught the boys everything he wanted them to know; they learned to act as his operatives, never asking questions and never speaking the names of Minna’s most frightening clients, menacing godfather types called Matricardi and Rockeforte. Eventually they are all employed by Minna’s car company, a front for a detective agency that offers surveillance, wiretapping, collection, and the occasional act of vandalism in the service of Minna’s nameless clients.
As Essrog says, “Minna Men follow instructions. Minna Men try to be like Minna, but Minna is dead.” With Minna gone, his men are unmoored and become suspicious of each other, even as they try to organize an effort to solve the murder. Essrog determines to find Minna’s killer and decides to run his own investigation. The novel follows Essrog over the next two days as he revisits the Zen center and disrupts a Zen meditation session, stakes out the car company/detective agency to spy on the other Minna Men, attempts to negotiate with Matricardi and Rockeforte, and treks to Maine in search of Minna’s missing wife.
Essrog is eventually able to piece together the puzzle of Minna’s death. The convoluted resolution of Minna’s murder is typical of the genre; it needs its own separate narrative and depends on events that occurred years in the past. Also typical of the hard-boiled detective novel are a number of Motherless Brooklyn’s stock characters: a Japanese business corporation whose members own the Zen center, the politely menacing mobsters Matricardi and Rockeforte, Essrog’s crony Tony Vermonte as Minna’s young protégé who wants to move up in the ranks, and Minna’s bitter Mafia wife Julia. Critics have cited stereotypical characters as a weakness of the novel, but just as the twists and turns of the plot are simply vehicles for Lethem to use in playing with the conventions of a hard-boiled detective story, the characters serve as effective foils for the central revelation of Essrog’s character, his “Tourette’s brain,” and the essential Essrog that lies underneath.
Tourette’s syndrome can be manifested in a wide variety of compulsive behaviors or “tics”; most commonly cited are tendencies to shout obscenities and to make seemingly uncontrolled gestures. Essrog’s obscenities are often directed at his personal phantom, Bailey, although Essrog knows no one named Bailey. Essrog frequently breaks forth with a string of variations on words or phrases he has just heard. These verbal tics can serve as an oblique (and often profane) shorthand revealing his unspoken thoughts. Attempting to ask his cronies a simple question, Essrog helplessly riffs on the noun: “Any calls? See that homosapien, homogenize, genocide, can’tdecide, candyeyes, homicide cop?” About to be knocked unconscious by a thug, Essrog thinks, “He’s just a...
(The entire section is 1788 words.)