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Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage Contemporaries) [Paperback]

Jonathan Lethem
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct 2000 Vintage Contemporaries
From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel.

Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways.  Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head.  Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books USA; First Edition edition (Oct 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375724834
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375724831
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,262,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College.

He is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger.

He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine.

His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's and many other periodicals.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York

Product Description

Amazon Review

Petty hoodlum turned owner of a small time detective agency, Frank Minna assembled a team of four orphans and made them his loyal servants: the Minna Men. When Frank is stabbed to death on what was supposed to be a routine job, Lionel, one of the four, is determined to track down Frank's killer and avenge his death. One thing makes this something of a problem--Lionel has Tourette's syndrome, a collection of tics and compulsions which make him constantly break out in nonsense syllables or cause him to touch every object he sees. His advantage is that most people confuse his disability with stupidity; when he gets up a head of steam, the large slow-moving Lionel is extremely formidable. Taking us from a Zen study centre to a dangerous car park on the New England coast, Motherless Brooklyn is at the same time a brilliantly characterised detective novel and an inventive exploration of a particular tone of voice.

"Meanwhile, beneath that frozen shell, a sea of language was reaching full boil. It became harder and harder not to notice that when a television pitchman said 'to last the rest of a lifetime' my brain went 'to rest the lust of a loaf tomb' that when I heard 'Alfred Hitchcock', I silently replied 'Altered House clock' or 'Ilford Hotchkiss'."

What might have been exploitative--the portrayal of Lionel and his compulsions--is attractive, affirming and compassionate. The sense of Brooklyn as a city full of borderlines between communities, the legal and the illegal, life and death, is overwhelming. --Roz Kaveney --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'A detective novel of winning humour and exhilarating originality.' -- Sunday Times

'A love song to [Lethem's] native Brooklyn and full of sparkling dialogue and plot twists - a fascinating adventure.' -- Guardian

'Terrific.' -- Time Out --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Audio Cassette
This is the best book I have read this year. Lethem is an excellent storyteller, inventive and unusual in his character depiction and engaging throughout. The dialogue is sharp, witty and perceptive between a collection of orphaned individuals whose universe revolves around the leadership of an exploitative father figure in a shadowy area of Brooklyn. It is part coming of age, part detective story, part sheer inventive storytelling and I liked it immensely.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tourettian gangster world 7 Nov 2009
By Officer Dibble VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Lionel Essog is one of the Minna Men on the edge of the law in modern New York. When their leader Frank Minna is knifed to death Lionel expects to find out whodunnit, 'just like in detective stories' but to his disbelief he discovers the tight little 'crew' fractures and he must investigate alone. He must also do so whilst overcoming advanced Tourettes Syndrome.

Ostensibly the book is thus set up as a crime whodunnit yet really we have a story about living with Tourettes. As such we see a Tourettian world; what is it like, what causes a reaction and what doesn't, how you can fight it and when you can't? The book is an excellent day by day (non-medical) intro to Tourettes and the detective story is really an unusual,engaging vehicle for that purpose.

The author tells lengthy jokes, Lionel talks directly to the reader,the 'tics' are itallicised and in truth become grating to read (thus also illustrating how frustrating this becomes if you have to live with it for real!).Lots of self-deprecating humour, 'I think I'll change my name to Shut Up to make it easier for everyone'.

Mr Lethem really makes Lionel a rounded, engaging character. He is not stupid nor is he Einstein. Furthermore he is not an avenging angel but he is savvy,street-wise and no pushover. He seeks a nice quiet sandwich rather than bloody mayhem. Check out the reviews before you buy as this is much more than a modern crime thriller.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exhilirating and Convincing Characters! 19 Dec 2002
Jonathan Lethem is a true original. His latest, "Motherless Brooklyn" manages to spin a tale of orphan misfits, detectives, gangsters and a main character that suffers from Tourette Syndrome into an impressive, rapid paced melee. The descriptions of the Brooklyn area, the characters and all the necessary sensory perceptions needed come through in snappy prose. Lethem's description of the 'impulses' and 'partly contollable' symptoms of Tourette are dead-on. Never has this reviewer read anything that so accurately captures the essence of Tourette and the personality in a novel. The reader can feel the symptoms of Tourette welling up in themselves as strongly as the character does on the page.
Half detective story and half a case study of a young man with Tourette, Lethem intertwines the two deftly, giving the reader little time to breathe between events.
The detective story may be slightly hackneyed and the closeness of the orphans and thier Fagan-like detective mentor could have been more intimately detailed, but Lionel Essrog and his Tourette's make fantastic fodder. Lethem goes for broke. This novel describes Tourette and real life on the streets like no other author has before.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An complex and original "whodunit" 1 Mar 2001
By A Customer
An Intriguing detective story, where the "detective" is a delinquent member of a gang of toughs, victim of Tourette's Syndrome. The argument is continuous and gripping. The struggle against the syndrome has elements of pathos and humour, and give a uniquely human touch to the sufferer and principal personality.
The story is set in Brooklyn, and gives some insight into the virtues and vices of the lives of the . The author is unknown to me, so when I picked the book up and started reading it, I was pleasantly suprised when I found that, not only is the story good, but it is also well written.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Orphaned again in Brooklyn 5 Sep 2008
By Annabel Gaskell VINE VOICE
Lionel is a young man - an orphan with Tourettes. Yet his boss Frank sees something in him worth cultivating unlike many others in Brooklyn who don't take him seriously. When Frank is murdered, Lionel vows to find out whodunnit. This is Lionel's story of how he found Frank, (or Frank found him) and his work to solve the crime - all seen through the body of someone with Tourettes, constantly ticcing and having other compulsive behaviours.

There's something romantic about Brooklyn in books that gives me more of a sense of a real neighbourhood than Manhattan, it's somewhere to live, wheel and deal, and get on with life, you feel at home there. It's also a place where an outsider like Lionel - who would be considered totally crazy elsewhere, can fit right in as part of Frank's work family. So when Frank is killed, Lionel loses his surrogate father and as he progresses in his quest to solve the murder he has to finish his growing up fast.

For three quarters of the novel, the detective story is really secondary to Lionel's life story. In the last quarter as everything falls into place to allow him to solve the crime, it does rather rush to its conclusion - but what crime novel doesn't do that?

This is an immensely readable and extremely enjoyable New York novel with a loveable and quirky main character.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Tell your story walking" 27 April 2012
By Eileen Shaw TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A group of teenagers from the local Brooklyn Orphanage find themselves recruited by a local man, Frank Minna, for various jobs to do with his taxi work and moving house business, though they soon find out some of the work they are doing has an edge of illegality. The story of their coming of age, if such it can be termed, is told by Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette's Syndrome and is casually nicknamed Freak and sometimes worse. Tourette's Syndrome is an inherited neuropsychiatric disorder with onset in childhood, characterised by multiple physical (motor) tics and at least one vocal tic. Most cases are mild and the severity of tics decreases as the sufferer ages. Children between ages of 5 to 18 may have symptoms such as transient and chronic eye-blinking, coughing, throat clearing, sniffing and facial movements. Extreme Tourette's in adulthood is a rarity and does not adversely affect intelligence or life expectancy.

The condition has not abated in Lionel unfortunately, and he is subject to verbal tics, counting and the almost uncontrollable urge to touch people, mostly around the collar (he relentlessly rights any carelessness or untidiness around this region. Understandably perhaps, this does not endear him to casual acquaintances, such as policemen, for instance. But it is not something he can always control, as he says, "For me counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag really..."

The book opens with Lionel and Gilbert (another of the Minna man gang) following their boss by means of a secret microphone linked to an Ear in their car. Only it doesn't look good for Frank, who has been seen by Lionel getting into a car with a giant of a man.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Book is fine but I bought it as a second hand copy ...
Book is fine but I bought it as a second hand copy in good condition and it has writing and highlighted text on every page
Published 27 days ago by michael bassett
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
This is a great twist on the classic detective novel. It's got
mobsters, cops, detectives, a great femme fatal, and stars a private
eye with Tourrettes syndrome whose... Read more
Published 8 months ago by V7+9
4.0 out of 5 stars Motherless Brooklyn
A book with humour and pathos - Through Lionel we grasp the challenges of Tourette's - I was facsinated by the way his mind works and the way it played with language. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Martin Timms
5.0 out of 5 stars Heard about this on the radio
Really glad I bought it. I do not usually read this author but I will go on to try more of his books.
Published 10 months ago by letitia Woolacott
3.0 out of 5 stars inventive and creative literary text
Lionel Essrog is part of a detective agency or maybe part of a group serving the needs of a couple of elderly mafiosi, along with three other orphans from Brooklyn (hence... Read more
Published 18 months ago by William Jordan
5.0 out of 5 stars ...just superb
This is the third copy of this book I have owned. I keep lending it to people and then not getting it back - easy to see why. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Bill P
4.0 out of 5 stars Riding the V Train to Zengeance
In this Chandler-inspired tale, small-time crook Frank Minna selects a group of teenage orphans, "Motherless Brooklyn" to be his "men". Read more
Published on 28 Mar 2012 by Antenna
5.0 out of 5 stars Edgy. Brilliant.
I came to this a bit late I must admit, the only one to suffer was myself. Oh how I wish I'd read this sooner. It's brilliant. Read more
Published on 4 Feb 2011 by Verve
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite Chandler
It isn't just that critics have seen something Chandleresque in Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, the book itself quotes from the old master ('About the only part of California you... Read more
Published on 27 Sep 2010 by reader 451
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable insight
Lionel is one of four boys from a Brooklyn orphanage enlisted to help the young Frank Minna, Lionel is then thirteen years old. Read more
Published on 1 Mar 2010 by Benjamin
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