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There's already a guy dead on page thirty-three of Jonathan Lethem's novel, Motherless Brooklyn. And not just any guy but a character who is pivotal to everything our protagonist, Lionel Essrog, is. I thought after Frank Minna was killed (in Greenpoint, any local readers), that I'd be reading a plot going backwards, not unlike Quentin Tarantino's film, Pulp Fiction, where the Travolta character is killed shortly after we get to like him. But Tarantino knows the demise of a likable (if corrupt) character too early on could be harmful to the forward motion of the plot. With our kind-of-likable guy gone, we, the audience, might become resentful, so Tarantino messes with the time frames, and brings in three other concurrent story lines until we've been tricked into thinking the Travolta character is not dead - - well, we know he is, but we get to live with him awhile just the same, and it eases the blow while helping the flow.

Motherless Brooklyn isn't really like that. It is a noir detective story, though, and we do have to go backwards for a time. The past continues to insinuate itself, to flesh out Lionel Essrog and the dead guy, Frank Minna, who meant so much to him. Meant enough for Lionel to risk it all on the dangerous mission of finding Frank's killer. But Lionel is a detective, after all, and it was Frank who made him one. In fact, Frank made him everything he is; he'd pulled Lionel out of the St. Vincent's Home For Boys to teach him first the ropes of small time crime on the streets of Brooklyn, and later the art of minor league gum-shoism, also in Brooklyn style.

The trouble is, Lionel suffers from Tourette syndrome. He is not stupid or cowardly, but he has a pretty terrific handicap for a man about to go up against more than one gun. Lionel is a bundle of tics, twitches, obsessions and compulsions (like counting, like tapping--if he compulsively taps one shoulder of someone he's with, he has to even it out by touching the other shoulder). In one scene he has to fight the compulsion to tap a guy with a gun to his face who also happens to be standing within range. Dubbed Freakshow by the less than savory mentor/father figure, Frank, Lionel is someone no one can be around for long, not even the other three orphans Frank "rescued" from St. Vincent's with him; Tony and Danny and Gilbert. Lionel becomes kind of endearing once his disease is made known, usually after an interlocutor has been treated to a shoulder tap or two, or to one of Lionel's manic wordplay outbursts or jarring neck-jerks. But he's a lonely guy, doubly so as an orphan with a weird affliction.

Yet, I didn't feel simply pity for Lionel with his antisocial asides; I liked him while I pitied him, which I guess is one of the points Lethem wants to make. To give a guy who has no chance at normalcy a crack at a life. By the end of the book I began to see the advantages of Tourettes. Don't get me wrong, it's a plague and a curse upon the sufferer. Not so long ago Tourettes was considered to be a visitation by the devil - - those with it were considered to be possessed. There is current research afoot to suggest the composer Amadeus Mozart may have had some degree of the syndrome. Specifically in his well-documented "love" of scatological vocabulary, which may have been a form of Tourettes that manifests as coprolalia: The involuntary utterance of obscene or inappropriate statements or words.

Still, when I suggest that I began to see the advantages of Tourettes, I meant no condescension to those who live with it. We are shown throughout Mr. Lethem's character development that the mind of a Tourette's sufferer is helplessly split between the personality itself and the personality coupled with the disease. Lionel has a rich internal dialogue, he is observant, in touch with his fears, his emotions; he knows he is a freak, he sees the Tourettes-self informing his other healthier self, always interrupting that self, keeping him from becoming a fully integrated personality. He tries to sublimate by eating (which has a calming effect on the tics, though the food must be ritualistically eaten, a hot dog for instance in five even bites). Sex too has a quieting affect, but opportunities are few for poor Lionel to conjoin unless one or both partners is half drunk. Extreme concentration of any sort, performing surgery, say, or facing the barrel of a gun, can also temporarily still the condition.

Lionel knows the irony of his position. He knows he is unable to stop his outbursts that are at times poignantly truthful in ways that cannot ever be normally expressed. The Tourettes in Lethem's book cuts thought the artificiality of social intercourse. Here is a scene with Lionel and Tony, who, now that Frank is dead, has begun to take over as leader. Lionel has his suspicions, especially so after Tony pulls a gun:

"'So what did they tell you?'

'The Clients?'

'Sure, The Clients,' said Tony. 'Matricardi and Rockaforte. Frank's dead, Lionel, I don't think he's gonna, like, spin in his grave if you say their names.'

'Fork-it-hardly,' I whispered, then glanced over my shoulder at their stoops. 'Rocket-fuck-me.'

'Good enough. So what did they tell you?'

'Same thing the--Duckman! Dogboy! Confessdog!--the doorman told me: Stay off the case.' I was mad with verbal tics now, making up for lost time, feeling at home. Tony was still a comfort to me in that way."

Or when confronted by the black homicide cop, Detective Lucius Seminole, who also asks about The Clients:

"'Never heard of them,' I breathed.

'Why don't I believe you?'

'Believemeblackman.'

'You're fucking sick.'

'I am,' I said. 'I'm sorry.'"

Now, aside from the syndrome being social hell, I don't get the sense that Lionel is too disturbed by his utterances; it's everyone else who is. He pays the price, he's an oddball and is ultimately dismissed as such, but he can blurt out social taboos and get away with it. When he blurts out a racist epithet, he's repeating what's available, words and sentiments that are out there, conscious and unconscious; but he's not being racist himself, and within that innocent usage the ugliness is all the more exposed for what it is. But couldn't we all use a day of Tourettes with an employer, say, or a difficult lover, a father, or in a setting of solemnity such as a long dull lecture, or perhaps during an overwrought religious ceremony? where we could yelp or bark or shout out something like, "Eatmebaily!" (a favorite catch phrase of Lionel's)? Couldn't a once in a while touch of Tourette-inspired-truth-shouting clear the air and freshen up communication?

The book is fast-paced and fun to read. As a writer, I would call Jonathan Lethem a natural. I'm thinking a player who steps up to the mound for the very first time and pitches a no-hitter. Or dribbles the ball like a machine-gun's ratta-tat-tat and never fumbles. I especially liked that Lionel, while out on his first real--and probably last--caper, experiences things that might hold out hope for a sparkling new future. He leaves New York City for the first time, has an awed response to the ocean off the rocky coast of Maine. Has sex with a pretty girl without either of them being sloppy drunk. Yet for all the newness that comes with his search for revenge, Lionel cannot do other than remain what he is: Freakshow. Funny-sad, and most endearing.

As far as finding his man, Minna's killer, Lethem takes a moment to ponder the questions of vengeance, and that I thought was good. I thought that such a pause is part what makes this detective novel step deeper into literature. That, and the characterization of Lionel.
Where he steps into the transient realm of self-referential pop imagery, though, I feel things slip a bit. Here's a scene where Lionel is, again, trying to off-put the homicide detective:
"The desultory magazines were shelved two deep in the rack--there weren't more than one or two customers for GQ or Wired or Brooklyn Bridge per month around here. Me, I was bluffing, didn't read magazines at all. Then I spotted a familiar face on a magazine called Vibe: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince..."

Lethem has Lionel then rhapsodize on The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, especially his music as tic, viz., Tourette's music. I am only going to say, GQ's circulation compared to Brooklyn Bridge? BROOKLYN BRIDGE? References like Vibe and Wired just don't play, they're so obviously self-referring that it feels fake. Especially when Mr. Lethem doesn't bother explain a reference to someone outside the pop loop, say from Anchorage, who may not be in on the in. Here is Frank Minna talking to the potential usurper, Tony:

"'You want to be Scarface?'

Tony didn't give his answer, but we knew what it was. Scarface had opened a month before, and Al Pacino was ascendant, a personal colossus astride Tony's world, blocking out the sky."

I'm sure Al's handlers would be thrilled to know his identity is so iconographically secure that one need not bother to state that Scarface is a movie and Al Pacino a star in it. There is a tiptoeing towards glibness in those sorts of assumed references that to me is kind of suburban teen-agish, funny but too easy. Here are a few given backwards, you connect the dots: Disneyworld, Ed Norton (of the sewers), Lethal Weapon.

And some of the arty references that thread throughout the book don't quite belong on the same turf as beefy Frank Minna and his Minna Men. Like the prejudices he allows Frank that trickle down to Lionel and the boys, but that make a less that believable fit:

"Hippies were dangerous...Homosexual men were harmless reminders of the impulse Minna was sure lurked in all of us---and a "half a fag" was more shameful that a whole one. Certain baseball players, Mets specifically (The Yankees were holy but boring, the Mets wonderfully pathetic and human), were half fag [Here he names certain Mets players!]. So were most rock stars and anyone who'd been in the armed services but not in a war. Lesbians were wise and mysterious and deserved respect...but could still be stubborn and comically stuck up..."

It goes on. And none of it sticks to a womanizing, small time Mafia errand guy involved in Brooklyn heists and stolen property. At least it didn't stick for me, but came off sounding like an agenda of Mr. Lethem's to make legitimate fodder out some of society's trouble areas with a sweep of his pen, like a magic wand. A nice idea maybe, but it has to convince.

These are only small pauses in the flow. They are sort of Tourettish lapses; carelessness, a blurting out of an idea, that doesn't serve the book well. That said, Motherless Brooklyn is a dynamic read. Lionel Essrog is a character that lingers on in the imagination after the last page. And for all those who respect the Borough, justice is done to Brooklyn, albeit tough guy justice. A treat to the local reader, Williamsburg is mentioned at least three times. I'm personally grateful that Frank Minna is killed off on McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint, and not on Bedford Avenue in the Burg, where so many sensitive artist types hang.

©2000 J. Stefan-Cole.


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