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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 27 February 2001
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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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.

This book is both funny and touching as Lionel and his peers come to grips with a most unfortunate event in their lives as Minna men. Lionel is the most insistent that they are kind-of detectives, not just taxi or house-moving drivers. The unravelling of the "wheels within wheels" - one of several catchphrases of Frank Minna's, is what the redoubtable Lionel is determined to do. The characters are all on the edge of legality, yet Lionel retains some aspects of his innocence as the plot begins to unravel. It is an excellent read that leaves you both sad and oddly cheered that Lionel will go on in some capacity, discovering those moments when he is truly himself.
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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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on 18 April 2016
There is a danger that Gangster fiction and Tourette's is a recipe for crass novelty: not in this case. Lethem's prose is spare but sympathetic and insightful; one is aware the narrator is quirky and perhaps a tad unreliable, but this is a wholly absorbing journey around the underworld, with moments to laugh out loud, and others to ponder the human condition. I came to this apprehensive having previously read Lethem's masterpiece Fortress of Solitude, but need not have worried - both will stay with me for a long time.
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on 28 April 2013
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 'motherless Brooklyn'). This despite his Tourette's syndrome, which makes life difficult for him, and relationships. His boss is killed. Lionel would like to know why...

This is not the kind of 'hard-boiled' world of Raymond Chandler, though, to whom the narrative refers a couple of times as a reference point, with admiration. There's not the same cynical take on the world, nor the same manic and diabolically complicated plotting. Rather there's a continuous interesting, but highly literary text.

As such, I enjoyed reading it, from the start right through to the end and including all the diversions en route. It's creative in its take on the detective story, and original in its use of language. Sometimes it's amusing (as in the rare scenes where the elderly mafiosi turn up in person), sometimes it's touching (as Lionel understand the limits of his world vies and tries to reach out to others). And the conclusion is definitely satisfying.
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VINE VOICEon 7 November 2009
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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on 1 March 2001
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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on 4 February 2011
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. It's Lethem's fifth novel and for me it shows him at the top of his game. He's exploring what seems like new territory for him, a brave move and a challenge he's risen to like no other. I honestly don't think that's an exaggeration. He's found his feet with the sentence, and moves you through this story with master strokes, with humour, and uncanny insight. Working with a detective has suited him well, working through the clues, at times uncovering, at others teasing out - and handling Tourette's inside a novel in such depth - a highly skilled author. Edgy.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 March 2012
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.
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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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