Saturday, January 24, 2009

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

"Ziggedy zendoodah," I said aloud. My erection dimmed, energy venting elsewhere. "Pierogi Monster Zen master zealous neighbor. Zazen zaftig Zsa Zsa go-bare." I rapped the scalp of the sitter in front of me. "Zippity go figure."

The roomful of gurus and acolytes came to agitated life but not one of them spoke a word, so my burst of verbiage sang in the silence. The lecturing monk glared at me and shook his head. Another of his posse rose from his cushion and lifted a wooden paddle I hadn't previously notice from a hook in the wall...

"Pierogi kumquat sushiphone! Domestic marshmallow ghost! Insatiable Mallomar!
Smothered pierogiphone!" The flood came with such force, I twisted my neck and nearly barked the words.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan, raised practically from youth by a low-level mobster named Frank Minna in the Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and along with three other orphans forms the nucleus of Minna's detective-service-cum-crime-operation-cum-fake-car-service. As you can see from the passage above, he also has Tourette's.

Which, when your line of work revolves around subtly discovering and keeping information, can be quite the drawback. Lionel is a sort of anti-Philip Marlowe, a detective who exudes anything but cool and goes undercover very poorly. But in the opening chapters of the novel Minna is murdered, and since one of the other orphans is incarcerated and the other two locked in a battle for supremacy of Minna's mini-empire, the lot of finding Minna's killer falls to Lionel.

The mystery here is slight--it involves Minna's long lost brother and a cadre of Zen Buddhist monks operating out of the Upper East Side. The revelations that aren't telegraphed to the reader early on remain murky at the story's end, and the whole goofiness barely elevates the novel above the level of a Monk episode.

But Lionel is an intriguing character to follow; a captive of his own tics who doesn't seem capable of connecting with any other human being except his dead boss. The Zen angle seems inspired by a lot of silly prime-time detective dramas, but at the same time it provides an interesting balance to Lionel's troubled psyche--the Zen monks have what Lionel can only dream of possessing: control over the tumultous waters of the spirit. In fact, Lionel--endlessly complicated, and tangled up within his own mind--matches the mystery genre a lot better than the orderly, logic-driven detectives that seem to dominate it.

As an aside, I have to say I enjoyed this a lot more than The Brooklyn Follies--among other things, The Brooklyn Follies seemed to have a big hard-on for the Park Slope life but never really provides the reader with local color to sink his or her teeth into. It could have been any reasonably sized blue city. But Motherless Brooklyn's Court Street is unmistakable, and to my delight includes a few locales well-known to me. It even makes a stop in my neighborhood, Greenpoint, where Minna is murdered and stuffed in a dumpster. I feel certified.

P.S: I think that Brent, Carlton, Nathan and Jim would all enjoy this--plus, Edward Norton is supposed to be directing/starring in a film adaptation released next year.

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