Monday, June 20, 2011

Week 22: Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

Looking for my next book to read, I plucked Motherless Brooklyn off of our bookshelf, and squinted at the author’s name. Jonathan Lethem. I knew I had heard that name before. Flipping through the first few pages, I looked at the author’s list of works. Aha! Lethem wrote Amnesia Moon, a book that I read in my book club a while back, a book that I loathed. A book that I considered to be one of the worst I’ve ever read. I nearly put Motherless Brooklyn down immediately, but Jamie, the book’s owner, assured me that it was decent. So I had a go at it. The story revolves around Lionel Essrog, a man in his thirties in New York City, who is part of a mafia-esque organization. Frank Minna, the leader of this – for lack of a better word – gang, took several Brooklyn orphans under his wing back in the day. Minna became a father figure to these errant kids and introduced them into the gang, allowing them to make some money under the table by helping him out with various “projects”. One of these orphans was Lionel, who differed from the rest because he has Tourette’s syndrome. Despite Lionel’s frequent and often embarrassing outbursts, Minna cares about Lionel and believes in him. As the years pass, the orphans grow up and become known as the “Minna Men”, and the orphans find themselves in a pieced-together family at last. However, their lives are changed when Minna is murdered and the men are left without their leader. Lionel takes it upon himself to find Minna’s killer, shirking the order of the gang and flouting the authority of the higher-ups. He becomes a makeshift detective and vows to figure out what happened to the man who was the only father he had ever known. The book is thoroughly entertaining and endearing, and the reader gets a real sense of the love between these men. Add to that Lionel’s Tourette’s syndrome, and the book takes on a whole new level of ambition. Lethem is incredibly successful in portraying Tourette’s via the printed word. At times, it’s uncomfortable to read, because it’s so realistic. You can almost hear the stammering and shrieking, almost see Lionel tapping someone’s shoulder six times during one of his tics. Where the book falters is in its caricature-like depiction of “mob life”. Most of the time, it’s merely mediocre; sometimes, it’s just plain silly. Some of the other characters, as well (most notably a young woman with the unfortunate name of “Kimmery”), are one-dimensional and not believable. There are also a couple of chapters that throw in a few abstract, weirdly formatted sentences on a page – how edgy! It’s a shame, because Motherless Brooklyn has flashes of subtle beauty and truly touching moments. The book accurately conveys the acute loneliness of both growing up without a family and living with a mental illness. But overall, the impact of the story is diluted by gimmicks. After reading this book and Amnesia Moon, I think Lethem still needs to mature a bit as a writer. Motherless Brooklyn is definitely a step up, though, and overall, I enjoyed it.

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