Motherless Brooklyn is a detective story with an interesting detective and a not so interesting story. There is something very endearing about Lionel Essrog, the story’s main character. Lionel, or Freakshow, as his friends call him, is an orphan and he suffers from Tourrette’s Syndrome. Jonathan Lethem does a remarkably credible job of explicating the running inner dialog, the tics and touches and the frustratingly uncontrollable exclamations that constantly ruin Lionel’s ability to blend in with Brooklyn’s Smith Street crowd.
Frank Minna, a small time Brooklyn hood, acquires Essrog and some of his fellow orphanage pals as teens to help assist him with his moving business, which mostly involves moving stolen goods from trucks to warehouses for some very old and old-school gangsters. It isn’t the easiest job on Smith Street, but it’s not the worst job either. As adults the boys evolve into the Minna Men and graduate to running a detective agency for Frank, which fronts as a car service. Strangely, Lionel’s Tourrette’s is like the gorilla on the basketball court, as people around him do their best to ignore his outbursts and assume he is either mentally unstable or just plain dumb, which gives him an incredible advantage for learning what he wants to know.
Frank is murdered in the first chapter, and Lionel takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of who ordered the hit and why. This is where things go off the rails. Lethem is a great writer, but the story isn’t crafted with nearly the same care as the characters and it takes both to keep readers engaged. The characters are believable, but the motivations that drive them are a little hokey and when Lionel finally figures things out it pretty much comes from left field. I enjoyed reading Motherless Brooklyn, but I would have loved it much more if the story had been as interesting as the characters who played it out.
Note: Looks like Ed Norton has been in development for years to direct and star in the movie version and will play Lionel Essrog. I’m quite curious, and though Norton doesn’t match up too closely with the physical description of Lionel, he’s probably a spot on choice to carry off the affectations of Tourrette’s. Don’t hold your breath on this one though, he’s had the rights since before Fight Club was released.