October 1999

Lethem takes on Brooklyn

By Jonathan Lethem
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Thinking about certain writers often brings certain places to mind. Mention James Joyce, for instance, and one cannot help but think of Ireland. William Faulkner's name evokes images of the South, especially Mississippi. So from now on, when anyone says Jonathan Lethem, I will think Brooklyn.

In Lethem's novel, Brooklyn is a microcosm of surprising proportions. Here, nothing is as it seems. Almost every storefront hides some clandestine operation. The corner barbershop hosts high-stakes poker, and the local arcade runs numbers. Needless to say, crime is omnipresent.

Struggling to navigate this world of crime and illusion is Lionel Essrog, a third-rate private investigator suffering from Tourette's syndrome. Lionel is called The Human Freakshow by the other members in his detective agency. Yet his outbursts and uncontrollable tics endear him to his fellow P.I.s and their boss, the cranky, bull-headed Frank Minna.

For all his stubbornness, no one knows Brooklyn's underworld like Frank Minna. Lionel and the rest of the crew are dependent on Minna for their livelihood and well-being; so when Minna gets murdered, the Minna Men assume they are next. Figuring out who killed the boss is not only a matter of justice but an exercise in self-preservation for Lionel and the remaining members of this motley bunch.

Though intrigue and suspense are powerful ingredients in this fascinating novel, the real pull is its locale. Lethem's ear for street-level vernacular and his eye for gritty urban detail lend color to this imaginative portrait of Brooklyn, its history and its people. As Lionel slowly works his way through this challenging case, this inventive novel offers up a complicated vision of a place alive with mystery and crime.

Charles Wyrick is a musician and writer in Nashville.

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Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn

By Jonathan Lethem
ISBN 9780385491839

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