Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jonathan Lethem - Motherless Brooklyn ****

I've got this bad habit. Sometimes, in half a frenzy, not even knowing what I'm doing, I find myself on the way out of a bookstore with a bag of books that I've just bought for no other reason than the fact that I felt like I needed a book. I am not at my most discerning in these shopping sprees, judging books not only by their covers, but by their font, their publisher and their author's name and its corresponding coolness. Sometimes, I come out on top, and I stumble upon amazing authors before anyone has heard of them, like when I bought Max Barry's first novel, Syrup. Other times, I'm even luckier, finding authors who, despite their talent, will never see their names on the New York Times Bestsellers List (British satirist Gordon Houghton unfortunately belongs to this camp, with his novel Damned If You Do--which, by the way, Christopher Moore totally fucking ripped off for his A Dirty Job). But other times. Oh, other times. The dangers of buying books willy-nilly is that sometimes you come up with a fistful of shit. Adam Johnson's Parasites Like Us was a Frenzy Buy, and look how that turned out.

But it seems as though the fates are shining upon me this time around, with Jonathan Lethem's 1999 release, Motherless Brooklyn. Of course, buying a Lethem book (as I've already insinuated) is not so willy-nilly as my spotted purchasing past has demonstrated. Obviously, the acclaimed author of The Fortress of Solitude's accomplishments precede him. Hell, even Motherless Brooklyn's got a National Book Critics Circle Award For Fiction logo right there on its cover. However, it was the first Lethem book I ever picked up, and I picked it up solely because I realized that I had yet to pick up a Lethem book. I knew nothing about him, other than the fact that my roommate liked him, and that he was on The Simpsons once. But, that's the kind of mentality one should have when going to the library, not throwing open a wallet at a bookstore. Fortunately, this time luck was on my side.

Motherless Brooklyn
is a detective story of sorts, an interesting blend of Silver Age shoot-em-ups and Golden Age intellectual-case-cracking. But at it's core, it is a study on its main character, Lionel Essrog. A young man with Tourette's Syndrome, thrown into a world of confusion when his boss Frank Minna dies, Lionel provides a narrating light into a grimy nightmare of mobsters, femme fatales and Japanese hitmen. The Tourettic compulsions Lionel has to fend off during the course of the novel could be a story unto themselves, let alone teamed with the edge-of-the-seat detective thriller that drives the novel forward. I was worried at first that these compulsions might weigh the story down, but really they made Lionel all the more believable, which is important in a detective story since the mystery itself is hardly ever able to be solved by the reader (in the true spirit of Sherlock Holmes and Scooby-Doo, the plot is way too complicated and far-reaching for a reader to have a chance here).

But that's not to say the plot is bad. It's one of the most original and well-executed detective novel plots that I've read in awhile. But, as with any good mystery, the novel should be more about the detective than his detection. Developing a character we care about and want to see make it through to the other side, bloodied and battered but still breathing and with the bad guys in cuffs. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a hundred years before, Lethem succeeds handily in creating a detective worth reading about.

Score one for Frenzy Mode. Lethem is a treat. Perhaps I'll pick up The Fortress of Solitude next time I lose myself in the Fiction aisle.

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