Urban DNA and the Hardboiled Thrill: Review of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

brooklyn rain

Lionel Essrog, the “free human freakshow” with his poetic tics, involuntarily word creativity and distracted vulnerability, is the most compelling character I’ve hung out with in ages–not because he has Tourette’s syndrome, but because of how Tourette’s becomes the means with which to avoid knowing himself or those around him thoroughly. Lethem, who’s somewhat of an expert at portraying quirky men out of touch with their emotions but not their imaginations, is at his best here, expressing subtle changes in Lionel and his fellow orphans-turned-“Minna Men” through perfectly restrained (and yet flamboyant) dialogue, the rising pitch of Lionel’s tics and pulpy-realistic views of Brooklyn. Brooklyn, however, both mythological Brooklyn of the hardboiled classics and a fleshier, tongue-in-cheek 21st century Brooklyn, is the character that lurks directly behind him, the shadow to his every jerky or balletic gesture. For Lionel, New York’s borders are those of the universe itself and through Lethem’s eye we see how New York is exactly what makes him possible, his external set of lungs–and perhaps vice versa. Lionel and his friends are less people than facets of the teeming City, each one a temporary representative of a morphing archetype. Motherless they may be, but Brooklyn’s influence on them, its turning of them to its own purposes is no less convincing or impossible to sever from sense of self than the hold of the closest family.

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