Thursday, October 16, 2008

Motherless Brooklyn

This was a great book, especially coming off Ulysses. It was another book club selection...my favorite so far, besides The Road, which will be hard to top.

Jonathan Lethem takes the basic plot of every hard-boiled detective novel ever written (it reminded me most of The Maltese Falcon, but maybe because I'm really familiar with it) and turns it on its head: Lionel Essrog, the main character, a "detective" for an agency run by his friend and mentor Frank, has Tourettes. Frank is killed in the opening of the novel, and it is up to Lionel to track down the killer...a mysterious Polish giant. The trail takes him to discover mob bosses (sort of), cops out of their league, Japanese businessmen, crazy Zen practitioners, etc. But no matter how 'ordinary' the detective story, no matter how much Lionel is set up by the frame of the narrative to be Bogart, he simply cannot be Bogart because of the Tourettes. There's a scene where he's gun to gun with Frank's widow. She's saying all the typical femme fatale stuff. But he can't help himself to shout EATMEBAILY! When he throws his gun into the ocean, he can't just do that. He has a compulsion to throw four more things in as well, including a shoe (because he ran out of other things to throw).

Was it perfect? No. Some of the dialogue was stiff at times and I really could have used a map of Brooklyn, but it was a good story, with unforgetable characters, and a unique twist on an old genre. I think that Salon.com's review sums up what is special about this novel: "[Lethem's] given us something that is at once less derivative and more traditional: a detective story that transcends its pulp roots not by adopting high-art pretensions but by bringing to the genre an originality and an idiosyncratic sympathy that few other writers could muster." There was a long discussion at book club about Tourettes, about how Lethem decided to create Lionel with that disorder, as opposed to any other, and I found a great article about Tourettes, and Lethem here, if you're interested. I am definately looking forward to rearding more by this author.

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